Techniques I have developed to replace self-harm

Using therapy and creating a kindness box, Aly explores ways she combats urges and finds healing, sharing her path from self-harm to self-care.

Written by Aly Ryan

Last Updated: Dec-08-23


TW // This piece discusses self-harm. Please look after yourself if you choose to read on. Our text support service details are listed below.

By the time I went to therapy, I had been self-harming for so long it had become more of a pastime to me, and it seemed impossible to stop it. I had kept it hidden with no intention of ever showing anyone until I had a particularly traumatic experience that revealed my biggest secret.

I had never told my therapist about it because I had heard stories about them having to call your parents if you were a minor or being sent away and I thought that this was something I could control on my own.

I didn’t want to share my biggest vulnerability when I already felt like I was letting everyone down, and to let someone know felt like dissecting my heart open for the whole world to view and make judgments on.

I was lucky to have a therapist who just wanted to listen to my side, and although opening up about it was one of the most difficult conversations I ever went through, it helped me be able to develop healthy coping mechanisms to combat the urge.

Identifying my patterns of self-harm

Before I discuss the actions I took to actively prevent self-harm, I had to identify my pattern. My therapist asked me, “What is the usual pattern for when you feel like you need to self-harm?” My immediate response was Sunday nights. The foreboding feeling of a new week, with new responsibilities about to unfold, would be overwhelming.

While my self-harm could take place on any day of the week, the bad Sunday nights were unavoidable and made me dread the weekend. Even if I had a fantastic day, the moment it would hit around 8 pm I would get this overwhelming sense of dread that rendered me useless to the world.

My therapist told me to create an action plan to combat this – to make Sunday afternoons and evenings my day to get myself sorted for the week emotionally. From 5 or 6 pm, I would play my favourite songs out loud and sing too loudly while cleaning my room and doing some self-care.

I would change my bedsheets, throw out rubbish, do my laundry, take a long shower where I would use hair masks and exfoliate, and light a scented candle. I would have my fairy lights on with my main light turned off in my bedroom. Being able to relax in a clean and calming environment feeling warm and cuddly in freshly washed fluffy pyjamas while I watched my favourite shows on Netflix made those nights a little bit easier.

As my depression made it hard to even get out of bed most days, it was tough to force myself to do it all, but after I did it one week and felt much better about myself, knowing how rewarding the result was made it became a weekly routine for years.

It didn’t stop the thoughts, but the entire process would take me hours and sometimes I would be so tired after it all I would fall straight asleep and never get the chance to entertain those thoughts.

As a bonus, my parents knew my routine and I could feel their pride as I went about doing my laundry and singing my songs loudly like I used to before my mental state went downhill.

To this day, my Sunday nights are my night to take some time for myself and get ready for the upcoming week.

Making a kindness box

The most effective tip I learned to actively combat self-harm in the moment was making a kindness box. My therapist told me to get an old shoebox, decorate it however I please, and get small cheap toys from places like Tesco or Dealz to fill it with.

These toys could be things like bubble wands, soft toys, tiny racecars, stress balls, or tiny pots of slime. Although the idea was embarrassing for an insecure and vulnerable 16-year-old, the goal was essentially to create something that could distract me for however long I needed by focusing on the feelings of using these toys, such as the feeling of the slime between my fingers.

I went home that day and created a box that I painted on and printed out photos of memes and things I loved, like constellations and flowers, that I then covered the box in. I then went around each shop in my town and picked up loads of cheap kid’s toys, saying they were for a kid’s birthday present whenever the cashier looked at me strangely. I also included sweets to give myself more motivation to open the box whenever I felt I didn’t need it.

The result was a colourful and funny box that I kept under my bed that was within reach whenever I needed it.

Although I was apprehensive initially about its effectiveness, I did use the box whenever I needed it and it turned out to be the best thing I could have done for myself. Alone in my room, I didn’t feel stupid using these things. I let myself feel the joy of being 4 years old again when I saw how big I could make a bubble, and it distracted me from the dark thoughts creeping in the corners.

My therapist had also told me to get things for the box that would allow me to focus on my five senses. When things were particularly bad, I would close my eyes and feel the touch of the soft teddy bear, smell the lavender room spray, hear the noise of the race car over my skin, taste the gummy bears, and watch the bubbles travel across my room before finally popping.

I would do this repeatedly until my heart rate calmed down and I felt the urge pass. Sometimes, I would put in my earphones and play my favourite music (which, ironically, was Twenty One Pilots at the time) when doing these things to fully disconnect myself from the world and to drown out the negative feelings. Although this could take anywhere from five to forty-five minutes, it was proven successful every time.

This box was the best idea I received during that time of my life. Although I haven’t used it since moving out and going to college, I have always kept something small in my bedroom, such as just the bubble wand or a lavender-scented room spray, whenever I felt the urge. At this point, I instinctively take a deep breath and close my eyes whenever I smell lavender, and I am eternally grateful for this change.

My self-harm and me today

Through using all these tips, I was successfully able to swap the urge to self-harm with looking after myself and allowing myself to be distracted until the urge passes. As a result, combined with frequently attending therapy, I haven’t had to resort to punishing myself whenever my mental state becomes fragile, instead focusing on what I have around me. Although the scars remain, I view them as battle scars that serve to remind me of how far I have come.

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