This post talks about experiences of and alternatives to self-harm. If you need urgent help, please visit the Get help now page.
Self-harm (or self-injury) is when someone hurts themselves on purpose.
People self-harm for lots of different reasons, including because self-harm can be a way for someone to:
- cope with distressing emotions.
- stop feeling numb.
- feel in control.
- punish themselves.
- communicate to people that they need help and support.
- cope with distressing thoughts, including intrusive thoughts that are part of OCD.
Even though self-harm can be a way of coping in the short-term, we know that it doesn’t help in the long-term. Self-harm doesn’t make difficult feelings, thoughts, or situations go away – and lots of young people say that it brings up difficult emotions like regret too. It’s also important to remember that self-harm has risks.
To find out more about self-harm, read our interview about myths about self-harm with Clinical Psychiatrist Dr Ritu Mitra.
Sometimes it can feel like self-harm is the only option, but this isn’t true. Even if you’ve been struggling with self-harm for a long time, recovery is possible. There are safe alternatives to self-harm and other ways to cope.
Don’t try to cope on your own
If you want to hurt yourself, you deserve support and there are people who want to help you.
It’s a good idea to tell an adult you trust so they can help you – this could be a parent or carer, teacher, youth worker, or GP. Doc Ready is a resource designed to help people prepare to talk to a doctor about their mental health, but you could use it to make a checklist of things you’d like to mention to whoever you’d like to talk to.
You could also talk to someone anonymously, for example by texting NATTER to 85258 to text confidentially with a trained volunteer. You could also check out Get help now to find out about places you can call or email.
Try to delay
Sometimes it feels like the urge to self-harm will never go away – and that nothing else can take its place. It might be impossible to imagine getting through the next few hours, or the whole evening, without hurting yourself.
In these situations, it can be helpful to recognise how hard it feels and find a middle ground. You could try something else for 15 minutes, then check in with yourself to see if things have changed. If 15 minutes feels too much, figure out what a manageable amount of time might be for you.
After this time, check in with yourself. How big is the urge now? Could you manage another 5, 10, or 15 minutes without self-harming? It might be that you can wait out the urge to self-harm if you take it a few moments at a time. And even if you don’t get through the whole day, you’ve given yourself the chance to practise other ways of coping. With time, you may be able to sit with the urge until it fades.
We’ve listed eight things you can try to help with the urge to self-harm. It can be helpful to look beyond the urge and take a moment to think about why you want to self-harm, so you can figure out what you need.
It’s up to you whether you read them in order or click on one of the headings to skip to the one you think will be most helpful for you:
- See the bigger picture beyond self-harm
- Comfort yourself
- Express something
- Ground yourself in the moment
- Ask for help
- Solve a problem
- Distract yourself with something else
See the bigger picture beyond self-harm
The urge to self-harm can feel overwhelming, but it can be helpful to remind yourself of all of the reasons you have to try another way of coping.
Some people find it helpful to collect things that remind them of important people or memories, like photos or messages. When things are really difficult, these things act as reminders of the good things to look forward to and aim towards.
Other people like to set themselves specific goals for the future. A lot of the time, being able to manage without self-harm is a good step on the way to achieving these goals – and we know it’s possible if you take it one day (or one urge) at a time.
Sometimes people talk about self-harm as a way to comfort or reassure themselves in difficult situations. Here are some alternatives that will help calm your body (and mind) down safely:
- Wrap yourself in a blanket.
- Give yourself a hug.
- Cuddle a soft toy or stroke a pet.
- Listen to soothing music or an encouraging video.
- Read or listen to a story you know well.
- Take care of your body, for example, you could massage moisturiser into your skin or paint your nails.
- Use moderate heat to comfort yourself, like a hot water bottle, microwave heat pack, or ‘instant heat’ pack.
- Look at things that remind you of positive memories, like photos or notes and cards written by people who are important to you.
- Remind yourself of your favourite tastes, smells, textures, and sensations. You could use fidget toys or a favourite candle, for example.
It might be helpful to put together some of the things that you know help to comfort you so you can reach them easily if you need them. You could do this as part of building a self-soothe box.
Self-harm can also be a way of expressing something that’s difficult to put into words. Maybe you feel overwhelmed and can’t name or understand what you’re feeling, maybe you feel a lot of sadness or anger (towards someone else, a situation, or yourself), or maybe you want to punish yourself. Here are some other, safer ways to express thoughts and feelings that are hard to talk about:
- Write down how you feel. If it would be helpful, you could write a letter you’ll never send to someone else or even a letter to yourself. If you write a letter to yourself, can you write back with the sort of kindness you’d show a friend?
- Use a code word you’ve agreed with a trusted adult that means you’re not feeling OK, want to self-harm, or need some extra support.
- Draw (or collage) how you feel.
- Draw on your body with a skin-safe, water-based pen.
- Destroy a piece of paper by scribbling on it or tearing it up. You could write or draw on it first.
- Move your body in a safe, expressive way, for example, by dancing to an energetic song or putting your energy into hoovering your room.
- Shout into a pillow – this can be really helpful if you’re angry at a person and you don’t feel able to express that anger safely or helpfully.
- Let yourself cry, then take care of yourself like you would a friend.
- Throw something safely – you could take a ball to a nearby park or throw a soft stress ball onto your bed.
Ground yourself in the moment
If you’re feeling numb or disconnected, there are safe ways to bring yourself back to the present moment. Lots of people find it helpful to start with things that help ground them in their body. Here are some ideas:
- Bring your focus back to the present moment with your senses. Try to name five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. Try to engage with the things you name, for example, noticing how the things you touch feel or what you think of the scents you can smell.
- Choose one sense and focus on it, for example, trying to spot something for each colour of the rainbow or distinguish and name different background noises.
- Focus on your breathing – see if you can slow it down a little and notice how it feels.
- Remind yourself of a helpful fact, like ‘I am safe’ or ‘I’m doing my best’.
- Think of a time where you felt safe. Try to imagine how the safe place looks, sounds, feels, and smells. Can you connect with how safe you felt in that moment?
- Try some yoga. You could follow a yoga video on YouTube.
Ask for help
Often, people find it hard to share the distress behind self-harm or tell someone that they’ve self-harmed – but we know it can be really helpful to reach out to a supportive adult for help. For some people, self-harm can be one way of letting the people around them know that they are struggling and need help. If this is something you relate to, it’s important that you know you deserve compassion and support – and that there are other ways you can ask for help. To reach out for help, you could:
- Ask someone you live with to spend time doing an activity (like doing a jigsaw or playing a game) with you. You could agree in advance that you’ll ask to do that activity if you need support or are struggling.
- Use a prearranged signal to tell a parent or carer you need help, for example, messaging them a specific emoji.
- Text NATTER to 85258 to text with a trained volunteer (it’s free, anonymous, and confidential).
- Check out other ways to speak or message someone on the Get help now page.
Solve a problem
Some people use self-harm as a way to cope when things feel overwhelming and they don’t know what to do about a difficult situation. As well as expressing your thoughts and feelings, you could start to feel more in control by:
- Write a list of what’s worrying you, then identify what you can and can’t control. Choose one thing you can do about something you can control, and work towards letting go of the things that you can’t help.
- Write a letter to yourself. Can you imagine the sort of advice and encouragement you’d give to a friend, or what a trusted friend or adult might say to you?
- Try to put the problem in context of time – ask yourself how you might feel about it tomorrow, next week, and next year?
- Reflect on how you (or people like you) have solved similar problems before. What sort of things have helped?
- Tidy up, rearrange, or organise something. You could try a drawer or shelf in your room or the apps on your phone.
- Text NATTER to 85258 and message one of their trained volunteers about the difficult situation. They can listen and help you figure out your options.
- Tell an adult you trust about the things that feel overwhelming. They might be able to help you make a plan.
Distract yourself with something else
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what you need and why you want to self-harm. If you’re struggling to identify which actions might help, or the urge to self-harm feels more manageable but hasn’t gone away, it might help to distract yourself.
Distraction is personal to everyone – it’s about finding something that you find interesting and enjoyable so you can shift your focus.
Here are some of our favourite ways to distract:
- Play a game – video, card, or board games can all help. It’s up to you whether you choose something you can play on your own or get a friend involved.
- Read or listen to a new story, or get stuck into a TV show or film. You might be able to borrow e-books from your local library. You can find your nearest library on the Government website.
- Practise a skill like language learning (you could use a free app like Duolingo) or playing a musical instrument (if it’s not the middle of the night!).
- Get stuck into something creative – you could write, draw, colour, follow an online tutorial for origami, or use a craft kit.
- Start to make a self-soothe box – check out our post on how to make a self-soothe box for ideas.