Self harm distraction techniques

Ideas for when you feel the urge to hurt yourself

Written by spunout


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?

It can sometimes be difficult to find ways to resist the urge to self-harm once it hits. However, it is possible to resist this urge, you just need to find the way that works best for you. There are a number of short and long-term solutions to dealing with urges to self harm. Find out more about dealing with these urges here.

Among other things, using self-harm distraction techniques can help to take your mind away from the urge and focus it towards more positive coping mechanisms

Self harm distraction techniques

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.

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.

If you get the urge to self harm, you can try these techniques:

  • Eat if you’re hungry
  • Talk about your anger with friends/family if you’re angry
  • Phone, text, email or visit friends/family if you’re lonely
  • Go for a nap or get some rest if you’re tired

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.

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.

Drawing on yourself

Draw on yourself in red pen or marker where you normally hurt yourself.

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.

Throw a water balloon

Throwing a water balloon and watching it explode in front of you can be therapeutic.

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.


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. You could also try an adult colouring book.


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.

​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.

Listen to 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Make lots of noise

Shout, scream, play loud music, bang drums, whatever it is that helps to release some of the emotion you’re feeling.

Sing or play an instrument

Belt out your favourite song and play it on repeat until you feel calm.


Gardening is well known as being very therapeutic. Just being out in the fresh air can make a difference.

Say the alphabet backwards

It’s harder than you think and will take your mind away for a minute. Congratulate yourself when completed.

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