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Self-care for self-harming behaviour

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Self-care for self-harming behaviour

Self-harm is behaviour that deliberately causes pain to yourself — usually as an extreme way of trying to cope with distress.

While some people hurt themselves to try and cope with distress, the relief is usually short-lived, and can result in the desire to self-harm again. With support and understanding, you can learn new strategies to cope, and you can move on from self-harm altogether. Here are some positive steps you can take.

Think about why you self-harm

Give some thought to reasons you might use self-harm to cope. Is could be to:

  • express feelings you can’t put into words
  • release your pain and tension
  • help you feel in control
  • distract you from overwhelming emotions or difficult life circumstances
  • relieve guilt and punishing yourself
  • make you feel alive, or simply feel anything, instead of feeling numb.

Acknowledging why you use self-harm gives you a better chance to find a safer way to meet that need. 

Understand your self-harm

The better you understand your self-harm, the better equipped you are to make different choices. Keep a diary of what happens before, during and after self-harm. This can help you do three things:

1. Recognise your triggers

Triggers are the things that set off your desire to self-harm. They could include people, situations, anniversaries, times of day, physical sensations, thoughts or feelings. In your diary, write down what was happening before you last self-harmed.

2. Recognise your urges

Write down what your urge to self-harm feels like, so you can recognise it in the future. Urges vary from person to person but can include:

  • physical sensations, such as a racing heart, nausea, or very shallow breath
  • feelings of heaviness, fogginess or blackness
  • disconnecting with yourself, such as feeling like you are outside of your own body or losing all feelings of sensation
  • strong emotions, like sadness, fear, despair or rage
  • specific thoughts, such as ‘hurt’ or ‘I’m going to cut.’

3. Build your self-esteem

Positive self-talk can make a difference to how you feel. In your diary, write down everything you like about yourself, no matter how small. Don’t worry if it feels weird or artificial at first. Do this as regularly as you can.

Self-help strategies: delay, distract, divert, deep breathe

Some of these will work for you and some won’t. That’s normal. Find what works for you and make those your personal strategies.


Wait ten minutes before self-harming. If it works, try delaying for half an hour, an hour, a morning, a day, a week. Give yourself the time to try other, better ways to get what you need.


Interrupt your urge to self-harm by doing something else. You can use distraction when you are feeling the urge, when you are aware you are actually self-harming, or even if you think you might feel your urges soon.

Here’s a list of distractions: choose the ones that work for you, add your own and write them in your diary.

  • Go to a self-help website (try the SANE Forums)
  • Call a friend for a chat
  • Bite on bunched up material
  • Run, dance, jump rope, hit a punching bag, play with a pet
  • Walk in nature
  • Make noise (shout, play an instrument, bang on pots and pans)
  • Wrap a blanket round you
  • Let yourself cry or sleep
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Tell someone how you feel
  • Write a letter about how you are feeling, then destroy it
  • Massage your hands
  • Take a bath or hot shower
  • Write lists
  • Tidy up, tear things up, throw things out
  • Weed the garden
  • Clench then relax all your muscles


If you’re struggling to delay or distract yourself, perform an action which is similar to your self-harm, but doesn’t cause injury. Try our suggestions, find what works for you and add them to your diary.

  • Draw on your arm instead of cutting, or flick elastic bands on your wrists
  • Hold ice cubes or have a very cold shower
  • Eat something with a strong taste, like chili, peppermint or grapefruit peel
  • Smell something with strong odour
  • Punch a cushion, scream into a pillow, squeeze a stress ball or squish Play-Doh or clay

Deep breathe

Lie in a comfortable position and breathe in deeply. Breathe out slowly, making your out-breath longer than your in-breath.

There are a lot of excellent deep breathing and other relaxation resources available online. Try Smiling Mind, search YouTube or your phone app store for ‘relaxation’ or ‘progressive muscle relaxation’ or read our post on mindfulness apps.

Look after yourself

Self-care helps you feel more positive. Everyone has their own needs, but these are some suggestions that are known to help:

  • Connect with health professionals you trust. It might be a good family doctor or GP, a psychologist or psychiatrist, depending on your needs
  • Exercise. Even light regular physical activity can boost your mood and reduce stress
  • Eat regular, healthy meals
  • Get enough sleep
  • Do something creative to express your feelings
  • Spend time every week doing things that you enjoy, like seeing friends or going for a walk. Try to make time regardless of what else is going on

For more ideas, read the SANE Healthy Living Factsheet.

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