How can I help myself?

If you are thinking about stopping or reducing your self-harm, finding ways of helping yourself can feel very empowering.

This section gives some ideas for how you can support yourself better. Some can be done when you feel like self-harming, while others can be done at any time. You may need to try a few to find out what works for you. These techniques may be helpful on their own, or alongside professional help. (See ‘Treatment and support’).

“Fifteen years of self-harm was my way of releasing the pain, releasing the lid on a screaming pressure cooker. It gave me remendous relief. It’s 20 years since then, because I learnt to cry, scream, give voice to pain, dance, laugh and sing.”

There is no magic solution or quick fix for self-harm, and making changes can take time and involve periods of difficulty. It is common to make some progress and then get back into old behaviours again. If this happens to you, remind yourself that it is not failing – it is simply part of the process. There is hope, no matter how many times you get back into old behaviours and pull yourself back up. Every day is a new day, and every day is a start to recovery and getting better.

If you do not feel able to stop self-harming completely, it is important to be honest with yourself and consider what else you can do that would feel helpful. For example, you may be able to work towards reducing your self-harm, rather stopping completely immediately. Your progress can occur gradually, stopping your self-harm completely later in the future.

Work out your patterns of self-harm

It may be that things happen so fast, it feels impossible to realise you have an urge to self-harm before you find that you are already hurting yourself.

Understanding your patterns of self-harm can help you to work out what gives you the urge to self-harm, and recognise when the urge is coming on. One way to help yourself work out your patterns of self-harm is by keeping a diary of what happens before, during and after each time you self-harm. It is helpful to do this over a period of time, maybe a month, so that you start to see patterns.

Remember, even when you are unable to resist the urge to self-harm, it is helpful to reflect afterwards on what happened. This will enable you to better understand the next time you have similar feelings.

Learn to recognise triggers

Your triggers are the things that give you the urge to hurt yourself. They can be anything from certain people, situations, anniversaries, times of the day, physical sensations, thoughts or feelings.

Practice noting down what was happening before you last self-harmed. Did you have a particular thought? Did you have an argument? Did you have to see someone you do not like? Did a situation or object remind you of something difficult?

This can be quite an intense experience and bring up difficult feelings and emotions. If you try, make sure you do something relaxing or enjoyable afterwards. If you find doing this distressing, you may want to ask for support from a trusted friend, family member, or medical professional (see ‘Treatment and support’ for more information).

Learn to recognise urges

The next step is to identify how you experience the urge to self-harm. Urges come in lots of different forms and may be different for you at different times. Urges can include:

Urges can include:

  • Physical sensations, such as a racing heart, nausea, or very shallow breath
  • Feelings of heaviness, fogginess or blackness
  • A disconnection from 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 ‘I’m going to cut’
  • Unhealthy decisions, such as working excessively or exercising excessively

“I feel the urge when I have too much feeling inside me, whether anger, sadness or frustration, that I can’t seem to contain it inside my mind. I think self-harming was my way of dealing with it.”

If you are able to recognise your urges, this can help you take positive steps towards reducing or stopping your self-harm. You might also find it helpful to think about how your urges relate to your triggers.

Even at times when you are unable to resist the urge to self-harm, it is still helpful to think about what happened, so you understand your patterns of self-harm better next time.

Distract from the urge to self-harm

‘The urges were overwhelming and would make me panic and feel desperate. Focusing on a specific task such as washing my hands, making a cup of tea, folding clothes, or something destructive like tearing paper or hitting something helped the panic pass.”

Distracting yourself from the urge to self-harm is a way of changing the cycle of self-harm by choosing to do something else. A distraction, like hitting a cushion or writing a list, provides something else to focus on and another way of expressing your feelings. This can help reduce the intensity of your urge to self-harm. Distracting can be done when you feel an urge to harm yourself, or as soon as you become aware you are hurting yourself.

Once you know the different situations and feelings that cause you to want to self-harm (your triggers and urges, respectively), you can create a personal list of distractions. It is important to notice when a distraction works in one situation or with a certain feeling, but not in another. Then you can consider what you may need to do in different situations or for different urges.

Below, there is a list of distractions for you to build on. Try to come up with five different distractions for each one of the feelings that causes you to want to self-harm. You can build this list up over time if you find it difficult to think of five things straight away.

Feelings Possible Distractions Distractions that work for me
Anger & Frustration Express it physically:

  • Exercise in a way that feels helpful rather than harmful
  • Hit cushions
  • Shout
  • Dance
  • Shake
  • Bite on bunched up material
  • Tear something up
Sadness & Fear
  • Wrap a blanket round you
  • Spend time with an animal
  • Walk in nature
  • Let yourself cry or sleep
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Tell someone how you feel
  • Massage your hands
  • Lie in a comfortable position and breathe in deeply – then breathe out slowly, making your out-breath longer than your in-breath. Repeat until you feel more relaxed
Need to control
  • Write lists
  • Tidy up
  • Have a throw-out
  • Write a letter saying everything you are feeling and burn it
  • Weed a garden
  • Clench then relax all your muscles
Numb & Disconnected
  • Flick elastic bands on wrists
  • Hold ice cubes
  • Eat something with a strong taste like chilli or peppermint
  • Smell something with strong odour
  • Have a very cold shower

“I use my art to cope, although it does not always work. I either draw very angry scribbling on big sheets of paper or use plasticine to get a lot of the energy out. I have only recently realised that a lot of the self-harm thoughts and feelings come from anger being directed inward.”

Delay self-harm

Another technique is to wait ten minutes before you self-harm. If you still have the urge, then let yourself. If you no longer have the urge to self-harm, then the next time you feel an urge to hurt yourself increase the time you wait to half an hour, an hour, a day, a week, gradually building up the gaps between each time you self-harm and reducing how often you self-harm. Even if you start self-harming again, you will now know that you can go for periods of time without doing so.

Other ways of making long term changes

It is also helpful to think about steps you can take to understand your self-harm and to find other ways of supporting yourself.

Build your self-esteem

Practising positive and encouraging self-talk can help make a difference to how you feel. As you experience urges to self-harm, try reminding yourself why you are having certain thoughts or feelings.

For example, if you are thinking ‘I feel like I want to cut because I don’t think that person likes me.’, you may replace the thought with another thought, such as ‘Even though I feel like cutting, I am going to find another way to express how upset I feel’.

It can also help to explore personal beliefs about yourself and others by writing them down in a diary. For example, you may believe you will never be able to stop hurting yourself or that no one will be able to help you.

Ask yourself if you can be absolutely sure that these beliefs are true and how it would feel for you to let them go or change them. If you find this difficult, you may want to ask for support from a trusted friend, family member, or medical professional (see ‘Treatment and support’).

It might also be helpful to write down all the things you like about yourself, no matter how small. Try to do this on a regular basis, perhaps every week. This will help shift your attention from negative feelings to more positive ones, and help you build your self-esteem over time.

Look after your general wellbeing

Looking after yourself can help you feel more positive. For example:

  • Doing regular physical activity can boost your mood and reduce stress
  • Eating regular meals with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables can also help with how you feel
  • Making sure you get enough sleep helps you feel better and more able to cope
  • Doing something creative can help you express your feelings, such as writing a song, story or blog, painting, drawing or using clay
  • Spending time every week doing things that you enjoy, such as seeing friends or going for a walk

Reach out for support

Reaching out can feel hard, especially if you worry that people will judge you or if you believe that other people might not want to help you. Try to remind yourself that everyone needs support at different times, and that it is okay to ask for help.

When you are ready to reach out, choose someone that you trust to talk to about how you are feeling. This could be a friend, a family member, a counsellor, health professional or psychologist (see ‘Treatment and support’).

You may also find it helpful to write a list of all the people, organisations and websites that you can go to for help when you are finding things difficult. This will remind you that you are not alone, and where you can get help (see ‘Useful contacts’).

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