Self-harm coping tips and distractions

No one is going to tell you that it's easy to stop self-harming, especially when you're doing it because you see no other way out. But by finding alternatives, you may be able to reduce the urge to self-harm, as well as minimising the damage.

Girl decorating cupcakes

Doing something you enjoy, like baking, can be a good distraction.

It may be that you’ve tried a number or alternatives to self-harming and they don’t work – but perhaps there’s something you’ve not tried, or it’s just that you’re not sure how best to do it. There’s several ways you can cope with self-harming, whether it’s by distracting yourself, or by finding a substitute for self-harm.

Is using an alternative as bad as self-harming itself?

Using alternatives to self-harm will help you get through an intense moment when you may feel a strong urge to hurt yourself. But it’s never going to be easy, especially when you’re trying to break the cycle for the first time. Doing something like squeezing ice won’t cure the roots of your distress, but it may help you to use a more productive coping mechanism and show you that you can cope with stress in a less harmful way. You’ll have to make a conscious effort to not hurt yourself, but the important thing is that if you do decide to use an alternative, you’ve made that choice yourself.

Minimise self-harm damage

If you feel an even stronger urge to self-harm, try the following harm minimisation tips:

  • Use a red felt tip pen to mark where you might usually cut
  • Hit pillows or cushions, or have a good scream into a pillow or cushion to vent anger and frustration
  • Rub ice across your skin where you might usually cut, or hold an ice-cube in the crook of your arm or leg
  • Put elastic bands on wrists, arms or legs and flick them instead of cutting or hitting
  • Have a cold bath or shower

“One of the reasons young people say they self-harm is that something has happened in their life that has made them feel contaminated or polluted by that event, whether it’s physical or emotional,” says Frances McCann, mental health practitioner. “It becomes a way of ‘letting something out’ and dealing with feelings of self-disgust or low self-esteem.”

If you are going to harm yourself:

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol as these can lead you to do more damage than you intended
  • Get your tetanus vaccination up-to-date
  • Try to avoid doing it when in a highly distressed state as you may cause more damage than you intended
  • Learn basic first aid
  • Self-harm is private, but think about how you can quickly access help if you seriously hurt yourself
  • Avoid using tablets or medicines – there is no such thing as a safe overdose

The A-Z of distractions

Often the best thing is to find out what has worked for other people who understand where you’re coming from. The Mix asked young people from young people’s mental health service 42nd Street to come up with some of the alternatives that help them.

  • Alternative therapies: massage, reiki, meditation, acupuncture, aromatherapy
  • Bake or cook something tasty
  • Clean (and won’t your folks/housemates be pleased!)
  • Craftwork: make things, draw or paint
  • Dance your socks off
  • Eat sweets or chocolate for an instant sugar rush (but be careful of the dip in your mood once it’s over)
  • Exercise for a release of endorphins and that feel-good factor
  • Forward planning – concentrate on something in the future, like a holiday
  • Go for a walk (preferably further than the local pub)
  • Go online and look at websites that offer you advice and information
  • Hang out with friends and family
  • Have a bubble bath with lots of bath bombs fizzing around you
  • Have a good cry
  • Hug a soft toy
  • Invite a friend round
  • Join a gym or a club
  • Knit (it’s not just for old people you know)
  • Listen to music
  • Moisturise
  • Music: singing, playing instruments, listening to (basically making as much noise as you can)
  • Open up to a friend or family member about how you are feeling
  • Pop bubble wrap
  • Phone a helpline or a friend
  • Play computer games
  • Play with a stress ball or make one yourself
  • Read a book
  • Rip up a phone directory (does anyone actually use them these days?)
  • Scream into an empty room
  • Shop ’til you drop
  • Smoke – smokers find that having a fag can help (smoking is not a long term solution; in fact, it’s a form of self harm)
  • Spend time with babies (when they’re in a good mood)
  • Tell or listen to jokes
  • Use the internet
  • Visit a zoo or a farm (animals do the best things)
  • Volunteer for an organisation (will make you feel all warm inside)
  • Watch TV or films – particularly comedies
  • Write: diary, poems, a book
  • Write negative feelings on paper, then rip them up
  • Yoga: meditation, deep breathing – this might help you relax and control your urges
  • Zzz – get a good night’s sleep

Photo of girl with cupcakes by volunteer photographer Jeff Arris

Next Steps

  • Our Crisis Messenger provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK. If you’re aged 25 or under, you can text THEMIX to 85258
  • Under 19? You can get confidential help with self-harm from ChildLine – either over the phone or through an online chat.
  • Anyone can contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour helpline to talk things through. 116 123
  • is an online community where you can get peer support for self-harm and other mental health problems.
  • As well as an online forum have arcade games which you can use as distractions.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.



By Julia Pearlman

Updated on 29-Sep-2015

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