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In addition to other forms of support, self-help strategies can be useful in managing urges to self-harm. Strategies include distracting yourself from self-harm and using alternatives to self-harm. It’s important to recognise that you might also need professional help to stop self-harming.

This can help if:

  • you’re looking for alternatives to self-harm
  • you want to get help for self-harm
  • you have a friend that self-harms.
Girl in yellow sweater writing down notes

Distracting from self-harm

As well as accepting support from a friend, family member and/or mental health professional, it’s important to create a list of strategies that you can turn to when you need to distract yourself from the urge to self-harm. The urge might feel overwhelming and seem like it will keep getting stronger until you give in. However, delaying self-harm and using other strategies to distract yourself can help these urges become less intense and less frequent over time.

The aim of distraction is to allow yourself to wait for the feelings to become more manageable. Different things are going to work for different people, so it’s important to write your own list of ideas.

Some ideas include:

  • Making the environment safe: Be with other people, remove any objects that could cause you harm, avoid places where you’re more likely to self-harm when you have the urge.
  • Delaying self-harm: Make the decision to pause when you experience an urge to self-harm and, instead, talk to someone first. If you can’t talk to someone, make the decision to wait for 15 minutes. If you make it to 15 minutes, congratulate yourself for waiting, and then try waiting for another 15 minutes, etc. It might not feel like it at first, but the urge will gradually pass.
  • Making a self-harm distraction box: Fill a box or bag with things you can use to distract yourself when you have the urge to self-harm, kind of like a ‘first-aid kit’ you can turn to quickly. The box should include things that require concentration, that you enjoy and that are safe. The contents might include a colouring-in book, knitting, a bracelet-making kit, various fabrics, a favourite book, a favourite childhood toy – anything that will bring you comfort. Read about one teenager’s experience of using a distraction box here.
  • Writing in a journal: Journaling can be a really helpful way to identify how you’re feeling and what’s making you feel that way. Becoming more aware of your emotions can also help you to become more aware of what leads you to self-harm.
  • Exercising: Exercise helps release physical tension and can be a great way to manage distress. Go for a run or a walk in the park, jump up and down on the spot, or ask a friend to do something active with you.
  • Playing video games: This might be a good way to distract yourself (if it’s something you enjoy!) until the urge passes.
  • Relaxation techniques: Imagine a safe place, practise slow breathing or check out some relaxation tips.
  • Crying: If you feel like crying, it’s important you give yourself space to do so. Crying is a healthy and normal (i.e. not weak or dumb) way to express your sadness or frustrations.
  • Talking to someone: Talk to someone you trust or call a helpline.

Alternatives to self-harm

Sometimes it might feel that the urge to self-harm is too strong for distraction to work. While the suggestions above might help you to release tension or to better tolerate your distress, these suggestions are not a solution to the underlying problem. For full recovery, you’ll need to work with a mental health professional to address the thoughts and feelings that are causing your self-harming behaviour.

What can I do now?