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Self harm distraction techniques

Ideas for when you feel the urge to hurt yourself

Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health

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It can be very difficult to stop or reduce self harm, so well done on making the decision to do so.

Self harm is a coping mechanism, so it is important that you replace it with more positive coping mechanisms that won’t hurt you or make you feel bad.

What can I do when the urge to self harm hits?

  • Give yourself some credit. You are taking a big step by trying to stop self harming. It won’t be easy, but you ought to pat yourself on the back for starting on the road to recovery.
  • Try the 15 minute rule which many people find useful. When you feel the urge to self harm, give yourself 15 minutes before you do. When the 15 minutes up, try to extend it by another 15 minutes. And so on, until the urge has passed.
  • Start putting positive coping tools into your life. Everyone is different, but common coping tools include: a healthy exercise routine that you enjoy, engaging with a professional counselor, joining a support group or writing out your feelings in a notebook or journal.
  • Try to implement healthy lifestyle changes. If you live on fast food, have a think about adding more healthy food to your diet or consider taking a cooking class. If sleep is an issue for you, chat to your doctor about some natural ways to help. Check out our sleep information for more tips on a healthy sleeping routine. If you exercise too little or too much, check out our health and fitness section.
  • Write down your thoughts and emotions that you are experiencing. Sometimes writing things down on paper can help you process your thoughts in a calmer way.
  • Create a happy box that you can go to when you need cheering up or calming down. Use a shoebox, and decorate it. Fill the box with things that make you happy. A dvd that makes you laugh, a book of inspirational quotes, pictures of friends or family who always cheer you up. Put anything in there that you feel will help you smile or calm you down when you are distressed and feel the urge to self harm. It may also help to write down a list of things you like about yourself that you can read when you are feeling the need to self harm. Write down the name and contact number of someone you can call when you need someone to talk to.
  • Seek professional help. If you have decided that you want to stop self harming, you may find it very helpful to speak to a professional therapist, counsellor or psychologist. You can book an appointment yourself or you can also ask your GP to refer you to someone good.
  • Be aware that you don’t have to go into great detail with your doctor if you do not want to. Simply explain that you are self harming and that you want to be referred for help.
  • Identify your triggers. This can take time, but if you know that there are certain things that trigger you, then you’ll be more prepared next time.
  • Accept that there will be slip ups along the way. It is extremely unlikely that you’ll decide to stop self-harming and then never self harm again. Bad days happen to us all and since self-harm is a coping mechanism; you may be more likely to want to self harm when you are stressed. Remember that any progress (no matter how small) means you are further along the path to recovery.

Many people who self harm find that writing down a list of distractions can help, so that when they feel the urge they have a prepared plan of action. The more you practice these distractions the more likely you are to use them when they’re needed.

Check out these distraction techniques:

  • Have a chat. Phone or text a friend or go out and chat to your housemates. Avoid staying in your room alone.
  • Go out somewhere. Think about heading to the cinema (many people go to the cinema alone, especially during the day – try it, you might be surprised how much you like it), to your local library (books and free DVDs and Internet usage) or to the shops for some window-shopping.
  • Try the HALT technique. This is a technique that many find useful. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. This technique recommends that you should never make any big decisions or do anything destructive while feeling any of these. So if you get the urge to self harm, you should eat if you’re hungry; talk about your anger with friends/family if you’re mad; phone, text, email or visit friends /family if you’re lonely; and go for a nap with a nice hot water bottle if you are tired.
  • Exercise. Exercise releases chemicals called endorphins in the brain that can lift your spirits a bit. Even something as simple as a 20 minute walk in the fresh air can be helpful.
  • Spend time with a pet. Research shows that spending time with a pet can lower blood pressure. So it has real physical effects and may help to distract you and cheer you up..
  • Music. Some people say that listening to music can be a positive distraction. However, be aware that if you are sad, listening to slow depressing music may not help you feel any better. Try to listen to feel-good, positive songs instead.
  • Phone a helpline. Helplines such as Samaritans (Also has a text and emaill support service) and Childline are always willing to chat about anything. Talking it out with an anonymous person may help you.
  • Garden. Gardening is well known as being very therapeutic. Just being out in the fresh air can make a difference.
  • Artwork. Try an adult colouring book for a really relaxing way to distract yourself.
  • Make lots of noise. Shout, scream, play loud music, bang drums.
  • Write it down. It is very therapeutic to write down all your negative feelings on a sheet of paper.  Use large markers, red pen, or whatever helps with the visual representation of your feelings. Then destroy it. Tear it up, burn it, scrunch it up, whatever makes you feel better.
  • Sing or play an instrument- belt out your favourite song and play it on repeat until you feel calm.

  • Cry it out- crying releases tension and helps flush out toxic energy. Sometimes a good cry is all you really need to stop feeling a certain way.

  • Meditate and focus on your breathing. Read more about meditation here.

  • Throw a water balloon- throwing a water balloon and watching it explode in front of you can be therapeutic.

  • Rip paper- Rip paper into small pieces and continue to rip it until it’s so small and tense that you can’t tear it any further. Tear as many pieces as needed to calm down.

  • Throw a ball- throw a ball as far as you can and then walk slowly to retrieve it. The sensation of throwing the ball will help release tension and the walk will allow you to calm yourself down.

  • Say the alphabet backwards- it’s harder than you think and will take your mind away for a minute. Congratulate yourself when completed.

  • Colour an entire blank paper until it’s filled with colour. Choose your favourite colour and fill the paper in completely. Concentrate on your breathing while taking the time to colour the page.

  • Hold an ice cube. Some people find holding an ice cube to be a helpful distraction. It can be quite painful but is a much safer alternative to physically hurting yourself.

  • Elastic band. A lot of people find wearing an elastic band around their wrist and snapping it when the urge to self harm hits them can really help.

  • Draw on yourself in red marker where you normally hurt yourself.

  • Have a hot and relaxing shower!

  • Dance! You might feel a little stupid at first, but put on your favourite music and dance. It can be so relaxing once you get into it.

  • Doodle. Grab a blank piece of paper and pen and just start drawing and doodling the first things that come into your head. You don't have to be good at art or anything, just willing to go with the flow!

  • Sleep. Make some time to catch up on your zzzz's to ensure this is not on e of the reasons that you are feeling a bit vulnerable. Check out if you are getting enough sleep here.

  • Clean your room. Yes it may not be the most exciting thing you can do, but it is a really therapeutic thing to do. Doing something physical and practical can really help reduce the anxiety you might feel if you get the urge to self harm.

  • Watch your favourite TV show. Stick on the tv or Netflix and watch your favourite tv show and you are guaranteed to feel a little better.

  • Use your brain. Do something that gets you thinking like a crossword, word search, or suduko.

  • Phone a friend. You might find it hard to speak to someone when you aren't feeling great. But by calling a friend you are reaching out and making a connection that will really help you avoid self harming. You can talk about anything, you don't have to talk about how you are feeling if you don't want to.

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Published January 2nd, 2013
Last updated August 15th, 2016
Tags self harm counselling mental health
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