Self Harm – Coping Techniques

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Trigger Warning: it can be upsetting to read about self harm. Look after yourself and, if you need someone to talk to, click here for some links to support.

What is self harm?

Self harm is the practice of intentionally hurting yourself as a way of dealing with emotional distress. When we think of self harm we tend to think of someone cutting their arms, often portrayed in films or on TV. Or maybe we’ve seen someone’s scars. But actually self harm can be many different things including hitting yourself with something, misusing alcohol or drugs, or deliberately starving yourself. Even things like pulling your hair or picking or scratching your skin can be classed as self harm. So what drives people to self harm?

The reasons for self harming are varied and often complex. It may give a feeling of being in control when things are hard, or be a way of numbing other feelings which are overwhelming. Reasons for starting could include bullying or a bereavement or maybe feelings of anxiety or depression. It could also be linked to a past trauma.

Some people see self harming as “attention seeking”. Whilst the person may be needing attention, it is unlikely that they are doing this just to get sympathy. There is also often a lot of shame attached to self harming, leading people to keep it a secret and stopping them from getting help for fear of being judged.

If you or someone you know is self harming, read on for tips on how to help, and some suggestions for alternatives to self harm….


Self harm is often an outlet for emotional pain. If you can put a bit of time in between the urge to self harm and the action of doing it you might find your feelings start to dissipate. Try to wait at least 15 minutes before acting.

What is it you really like!? Music? Films? Gaming? Talking to friends? Pets?

Find something you can get engrossed in and use that as a distraction when you feel like self harming. Try to stay off social media if you can as this can sometimes be triggering.

Learn to Recognise Triggers

Triggers are anything that sparks an intense emotional response. So it may be that, every time you hear loud voices, this triggers an anxiety in you which in turn triggers you to self harm.

Or maybe it is people being unkind to you which triggers feelings of worthlessness, leading you to feel like you want to punish yourself.

There are a multitude of triggers and everyone’s will be slightly different. Spend some time thinking about what your triggers are. Can they be avoided? If not, can you have something in place to help you (eg distraction as above) for when it occurs?


Mindfulness can take many forms. In essence it is focusing on the here and now, rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. But it doesn’t have to be a full on meditation or a yoga practice. Mindfulness can be done in simple, quick ways like deciding to eat something mindfully, savouring each bite and being aware of the textures and tastes.

When an uncomfortable feeling arises, instead of immediately going to the self harm, try a bit of mindfulness to see if the feeling passes. Check out my 3 mindful moments for some quick mindfulness tips.

Keep a Diary

Try writing a diary of what is happening for you before, during and after a self harming episode. Keep a record of what your mood is like and what you do to help. This can be really difficult at first but it may help you to identify triggers and feelings associated with the self harming.

There are apps to help you do this such as CalmHarm as recommended by the NHS.

Some Other Healthier Alternatives to Self Harm

Some other ideas for alternatives for when the urge to self harm arises include doing some physical activity, taking a cold shower or punching a pillow.

This illustration from @journey_to_wellness offers some other healthy alternatives to self harm.

Where to Get Help

There are many places you can go if you are turning to self harm to cope. You might want to start with talking to your GP, or, if you’re at school, maybe a trusted teacher or mentor. You may be referred for talking therapy with a counsellor who can help you work through your feelings.

If you’re a young person, the Young Minds website has more information on self harm plus they have a free 24/7 crisis messenger service where you can get support from a trained volunteer (Text: YM to 85258).

There is also more information on the NHS website about mental health support in the UK.

Amy is a counsellor specialising in neurodivergence and the founder of Newglade Counselling. She has created a team of neurodivergent counsellors who work online and face to face around Canterbury, Kent. Amy also provides parent support sessions, clinical supervision and delivers training in therapy and neurodivergence. For more information about our services contact us here

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  1. Pearlene Hope

    Nice article with practical solutions. Something not often seen in my opinion. I’ve never seen suggestions like cold shower or red pen. Thank you for being realistic.

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