How to deal with urges to self harm

It can be difficult to ignore urges to self-harm, but there are things you can do to manage them and feel better in the moment.

Written by spunout

Last Updated: Dec-11-23


People who self-harm often use it as a way to cope with distressing thoughts, feelings or situations. People who have developed self-harm as a coping mechanism can experience urges to harm themselves when they are feeling distressed, overwhelmed, numb, or out of control. These urges can make it difficult to stop self-harming, even if you want to.

While it may feel as though self-harm provides relief in the moment, it can also cause long-term problems later in life. Self-harm can pose a threat to your health and, in some cases, your life.

How to deal with self-harm now

It is possible to resist urges to self-harm and acknowledging an urge doesn’t mean that you will self-harm.

Self-harm recovery can come with ups and downs. Setbacks can be part of the process, so remember to be patient and kind to yourself. You are more than your self-harm and you deserve to live happily and healthily. You are taking a big step and it won’t be easy, but beginning a self-harm recovery journey is something you should feel proud of.

Here are some techniques that can help you deal with self-harm urges in the short term.

The 15-minute rule

Many people find the 15-minute rule helpful when dealing with urges to self-harm. When you feel the urge to self-harm, say to yourself that you will delay self-harming for 15 minutes. Try to keep yourself busy during those 15 minutes. There are a range of distraction techniques that can be helpful. When the 15 minutes are up, if you still have the urge, extend it by another 15 minutes. Repeat this process until the urge has passed. If 15 minutes is too long you can start with five and work your way up to 15.

​Identify your self-harm triggers

This can take time, but when you identify the things in your life that trigger urges to self-harm, you can learn to take action to prevent the urges from happening. It can also give you a chance to use other coping strategies when you know a situation is likely to make you want to self-harm.

Sometimes triggers can be avoided. For example, if you notice you have urges to self-harm when you’re spending time on your own with nothing to do in the evening time, you can schedule things to do things you enjoy in that time so it becomes less triggering. Other triggers can’t be avoided. In those cases, trying out new techniques to manage your stress levels can be really helpful.

It’s not always easy to know what is making you feel like self-harming. Here are some questions that can help you explore that.
What has made me feel the need to harm myself?
What thoughts were going through my head before I got the urge?
What alternatives could I do that don’t involve harming myself?
If I do self-harm, how will it make me feel?

Put barriers between yourself and self-harm.

When urges to self-harm come, keeping away from things you may use to harm yourself is a good idea. You can prepare for this ahead of time by putting these things in places that are difficult to get to, ask a trusted family member or friend to hold on to them, or to get rid of them completely if they don’t serve other purposes.

Talk to someone

If you can, call, text or visit a friend or someone you feel comfortable around. 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 how you’re feeling.

Create a happy box

Create a happy box that you can go to when you need cheering up or calming down. You can use a shoebox for this, any box will do. Some people enjoy decorating the box. Fill it with things that make you happy. You could include photos that make you feel good, fidget toys, some sweets, something that has sentimental value or reminds you of something or someone you love. Put anything in there that you feel will help you smile or calm you down when you are distressed and feel thoughts of self-harm start. 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.

Samaritans Self-Help App

It can be difficult to talk about your feelings – even knowing exactly how you’re feeling can be hard. Samaritans has a self-help app to provide a type of support that you can use without having to discuss your feelings with someone else. It will help you learn safe, memorable techniques for coping with things that are troubling you, through a range of interactive features. It can also help you make a plan to stay safe in a crisis, and keep track of things you can do away from the app to help yourself feel better.

Long-term solutions to stop self-harming

If you want to stop self-harming for good, there are a range of supports out there that can make this process easier. Every recovery journey is unique, but for many people, things like opening up to someone they trust, developing effective alternative coping mechanisms, and accessing professional mental health support are keys to unlocking recovery. Here are some articles that you may find helpful if you are considering your own self-harm recovery journey.
How to recover from self-harm
How to get support for self-harm
How to build new coping skills
Talking to your GP about your mental health
What can mindfulness meditation do for your mental health?

Feeling overwhelmed and want to talk to someone?

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