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.

Some people hurt themselves to feel better, and some just feel they have no choice. The temporary relief you get from self-harming doesn’t last long, but 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.

Acknowledge that self-harm temporarily helps

Otherwise you wouldn’t do it. Self-harming can help in the short-term by:

Acknowledging that self-harm provides short-term relief gives you the chance to better understand your needs and find new, safer ways to cope.

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:

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.


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.

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:

For more ideas, read the SANE Healthy Living Factsheet.

Further reading

Alternatives to Self-Harm, and Distraction Techniques (PDF, 275KB)

Self-help for self-harm

Positive coping skills for self-harm