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How to deal with urges to self harm

There are things you can do to manage your urges to self harm


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


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Self harm is used as a coping mechanism and if you are getting urges to do it, chances are that you have used it to cope for a while. Some people might exercise or talk to friends to deal with negative emotions. Others might use less healthy coping mechanisms like taking drugs or alcohol. Others use self harm as a coping mechanism.

You may be using self harm as a way of dealing with overwhelming or difficult emotions. Self harm might seem like a magic way to deal with stress at first, but it can become addictive and difficult to stop. It also becomes the case that the more you self harm, the more reliant you become on it and the more you need to do it to get the same release. This keeps the vicious cycle of self harming going around and around, and makes it difficult to stop completely.

Short-term solutions to urges to self harm

First of all, it's important to know that it is possible to resist the urges. If you want to stop using self harm as a way to cope, acknowledge to yourself that resisting the urge to self harm will be difficult but also remind yourself that it is possible.

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. You are more than your self harm and try not to forget that.

The 15 minute rule

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. Read our article on distractions to try when the urge hits. When the 15 minutes are up, try to extend it by another 15 minutes. And so on, until the urge has passed. If 15 minutes is too long you can start with five and work your way up to 15 and so on.

​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.

If you are aware of what triggers you to self harm, you may also be able to know what to do to avoid them in the future. This can often be difficult to do in the moment but it is really helpful so try to give it a go. It may take a few goes before you get the answers as the questions are difficult and challenging (but that’s perfectly normal).

  • What has made me feel the need to hurt myself?
  • What thoughts were going through my head before I got the urge?
  • What alternatives could I do that don’t involve hurting myself?
  • If I do self harm, how will it make me feel?

Write it out

Write down your thoughts and emotions that you are experiencing. Sometimes writing things down on paper can help you process your thoughts in a clearer way.

Talk to someone

If you can, call, text or visit a friend. You don't have to talk about self harm, although it may help for your friend to know how you're feeling. If you prefer, you can chat about other things to take your mind off it.

Create a happy box

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.

Try not to be hard on yourself

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, and 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.

You can find some information on self harm distraction techniques here.

Long term solutions to stopping self harming

If you want to stop self harming for good, you can try to work on some longer term solutions to your self harm.

Start putting healthier coping tools into your life 

Everyone is different, but common coping tools include a healthy exercise routine that you enjoy, engaging with a professional counsellor, joining a support group or writing out your feelings via journal/poetry/stories. Read our article on distraction techniques for when the urge to self harm hits

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 information on maintaining a healthy sleeping routine. If you want to get started with exercise you can find out how to get 30 minutes a day here.

Talk to someone

Talk about your emotions instead of bottling them up. This is something that you can learn to do with time, and will not happen overnight. You often hear abut the power of sharing any concerns you might have with others and how helpful this can be, and this is really true. 

How come I can’t stop self harming?

Overcoming urges to self harm can be extremely challenging and you won’t always succeed. Sometimes you may self harm and other times you may succeed in using alternative coping mechanisms. But you do deserve to recover and to find alternative, healthier ways of dealing with your emotions. It’s completely possible and although it might be a rocky road at times, you owe it to yourself to treat your body with the kindness it deserves, instead of hurting it.

Seeking professional help

If you have decided that you want to stop self harming, you may find it useful 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. 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.

You could also attend Jigsaw which is a free counselling service for young people aged 12-25 years of age, and has centres around the country. You can find more information out on jigsaw.ie

Pieta House is a free counselling service which specialises in working with people who self harm or are suicidal. They have centres around the country and often have very little waiting times for appointments. Find out more on pieta.ie.

You can also call a listening service such as Childline on 1800 66 66 66 or Samaritans on 116 123, or log onto an online support service such as Turn2Me.

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Published July 29th2016
Last updated July 31st2018
Tags mental health
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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