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Everyone is different, but some common reasons why people may self-harm are to:

  • express overwhelming emotional distress
  • express difficult feelings
  • feel in control of their lives

Overwhelming emotional distress

In most cases, people who self-harm do it to help them cope with overwhelming emotional pain. This could be caused by social problems, trauma or psychological reasons.

Social problems:

  • being bullied
  • having difficulties at work or school
  • having difficult relationships with friends or family
  • coming to terms with sexuality
  • coping with expectations


  • physical or sexual abuse
  • death of a close family member or friend
  • having a miscarriage

Psychological causes:

  • having repeated thoughts or voices telling them to self-harm
  • disassociating - losing touch with who they are and with their surroundings
  • borderline personality disorder

You may not know who to turn to for help. Self-harming may become a way to release these pent-up feelings.

Self-harm is linked to anxiety and depression. These mental health conditions can affect people of any age.

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Express difficult or hidden feelings

It's not uncommon to feel numb or empty as a result of overwhelming feelings. Self-harm may provide a temporary sense of feeling again or a way to express negative emotions. It can turn invisible thoughts or feelings into something visible.

People may also be trying to:

  • change emotional pain into physical pain
  • escape traumatic memories
  • punish themselves for feelings or experiences
  • stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated
  • express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking their own life

Feeling in control

You may feel it is one way to have a sense of control over your life, feelings, or body. Particularly if you feel other things in your life are out of control.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

page last reviewed: 23/09/2018
next review due: 23/09/2021

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