Steps to self-harm recovery

It may seem as though it's impossible to get out of the cycle of self-harming, but you aren't alone and there are ways you can help yourself stop. The Mix takes a few steps forwards and a few steps back.

Someone's converse on a sandy beach

Are you ready to take the first step?

Step 1: Be ready to take the first step

For many people, recovery from mental health problems starts with a decision that they want things in their life to change. Perhaps the most important thing is to think about why you’ve started to self-harm in the first place and what purpose it serves for you.

“Many people start self-harming when they’re frustrated or depressed, extremely anxious, or feeling trapped because of a certain situation in their lives,” says Frances McCann, senior mental health practitioner at young people’s mental health service, 42nd Street.

“It may be that you do it because you feel you’re not being listened to and it’s a way of dealing with stress without knowing what else to do.” Addressing the underlying issues that lead you to feel low and self-harm may feel difficult – even impossible – but this is an important part of the process of recovery. You may need the help and support of other people to do this.

Step 2: Talk to someone about your self-harm

Confiding in someone else about the problems you are having is an important step, but if you feel you’re not being listened to don’t give up – seek alternative support from your doctor (GP), counsellor, helpline, friend, teacher, or family member.

It may even be that the anonymity of online discussion boards will help you start to talk about your issues and give you the confidence to find more professional help. Some people may try and put you under pressure to stop but it has to be your decision – if you try to quit for anyone other than yourself you may not be able to.

You may also find it useful being part of a self-help group as it will allow you to discuss your feelings with others who understand where you are coming from and won’t judge you. If you want to talk to someone in depth, then your GP may be able to refer you on for counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or discuss whether it’s worth trying certain medication.

Step 3: Find distractions that work for you and develop better coping methods

There are a range of coping tips and distractions that you can try to help you cope with stress, upset, anger or difficult feelings. “For some young people it may be comforting to call a friend, or watch a movie,” says Frances. “Another one is to listen to music and get yourself moving – so it’s a kind of distraction activity, but it serves another function as it’s enabling you use that frustration in a different way.”

Step 4: Keep on keeping on

Stay with it – if you find that one approach isn’t working for you then re-evaluate your options and try another. For example, if your GP has prescribed medication and it’s not working for you, go back to your GP and let them know rather than just stopping. If the first time you speak to a counsellor it feels too hard, try and go a few times more before you make a final judgement about whether it is right for you.

You might find that alternative therapies are a good way of dealing with the pressures of life or help you to stop urges to self-harm. “Personally, I prefer alternative therapies than popping myself with pills,” says Ash, 16. “I use Reiki, head massage and crystals, and that really helps me, but it really depends on the individual and how your body and mind reacts to it.”

What stopped other people who self-harmed?

“At the time that you are doing it, it may seem hard to stop, but if you keep working on it and get the help that you need, you will be able to,” says Abbey, 24. “The best way is to get better coping skills in how to handle your usual stresses and triggers. Yes, you may have some relapses, I have had many, but all you can do then is to keep trying and trying and not give up. I was afraid that if I would keep doing it that I might cut too deep one time and I would bleed to death.”

“My mood lifted for a while, and I simply stopped having the desire to do it,” says David, 21. “Now I am tempted again, but it seems too much trouble to start dismantling the razor blades to use them, though I think that one time I will be so down that it won’t. I have a theory that there’s no such thing as an ‘ex-self-harmer’, just as there’s no such thing as an ‘ex-alcoholic’ or ‘junkie’.

“It’s more an on-going battle than one with an end. Though it is something that can be beaten, slipping back now and again is not something to be ashamed and disgusted of.”

If you don’t feel ready to stop self-harming

If self-harm has become part of your life and helps you deal with your feelings it may be difficult to imagine coping without it. It’s understandable that you may not feel ready to stop right now, especially as it may mean making a big change in your life.

In the meantime, try to take care of any injuries you may have and see a doctor or nurse if you’re worried that a wound may be infected. If you feel that your self-harm is getting out of control or that you are going to seriously hurt yourself – get help.

Even if you’ve stopped and gone back to it, you should remember that a relapse doesn’t mean that you’ve failed – you’ve actually started to make a positive step towards recovering, it’s just that sometimes it can take a number of attempts before you can stop completely.

Photo of feet and beach by volunteer photographer Rianna Hudson.

Next Steps

  • is an online community where you can get peer support for self-harm and other mental health problems.
  • TESS text and email support service runs Monday to Friday from 7pm to 9pm for girls and women aged under 25. Text them on 0780 047 2908.
  • 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 23-Dec-2015

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