Cycle of Self-Harm
Self-harm is a coping strategy that is used to help people deal with distressing thoughts and emotions. Self-harm can help release overwhelming emotions and can help a person to feel present and connected to reality again. However, the release of these overwhelming emotions is often only temporary. The act of self-harm can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, frustration and shame. These negative emotions can then cause the original overwhelming emotions to return, which can lead to further self-harm. This is commonly known as the cycle of self-harm. Below is a description of each stage in the cycle of self-harm. If you would like to see a visual version of the cycle of self-harm, please download the PDF at the bottom of this page.
This is when we start to feel emotionally distressed. The distress could come from remembering distressing or traumatic events, or could be from negative feelings that we have about ourselves. We could also be feeling numb or disconnected from reality. Often these feelings can be confusing, and we might not know where the feelings are coming from, or why we feel this way.
The distressing emotions that we are feeling become overwhelming. We can feel that our emotions are trapped inside with no way to release them.
The distressing emotions reach the point where we feel that we aren’t able to control them. We feel the urge to self-harm.
We self-harm. The emotional distress is reduced and we feel more in control. Self-harm is a coping strategy, and for each person the self-harm will hold a specific function. As everyone is different, the function of the self-harm could be different from person to person. You can read more about this in our Functions of Self-Harm resource.
We have managed to bring our emotional distress to a level that we can manage. However, this feeling is only temporary. We could stay at this point for days, weeks or months, or we might only stay at this point for a few hours.
We start to feel negatively about harming ourselves. We can feel guilt, shame, numbness or anger at ourselves for having self-harmed. These negative emotions lead back to point 1 and the cycle continues.
The best time to have a conversation about self-harm is when we are at point 5. At point 5, we will be calmer and will feel more emotionally balanced. Once the cycle has started again, it can be very difficult to break it. Self-harm is a coping strategy and, when we are in extreme emotional distress, sometimes self-harm feels like our only option. If we try and stop at point 2, 3 or 4, we are essentially taking away our coping strategy. This could cause us to harm ourselves in other ways that may be less familiar to us, which could be more dangerous.
Cycle adapted from the Sutton, J. (2007). Healing the Hurt Within: Understand Self-injury and Self-harm, and Heal the Emotional Wounds. 3Rev Ed edition. Oxford: How To Books p.187
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