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Why people self-harm - Self-harm

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

  • express overwhelming emotional distress
  • express difficult feelings
  • feel in control, especially when some things in their lives feel out of control

Overwhelming emotions

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

These can include:

  • being bullied
  • having problems at work or school
  • having difficult relationships with friends or family
  • coming to terms with sexual orientation or identity
  • coping with expectations


This can include:

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

Psychological causes

These can include:

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

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

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.

You may also be trying to:

  • change emotional pain into physical pain
  • escape traumatic memories
  • punish yourself for feelings or experiences
  • stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated
  • express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking your 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: 1 September 2022
Next review due: 1 September 2025