Overcoming Self-Harm

What is Self-Harm?Dramatic image of a sad teenage girl crawled up in a ball and crying.

Self-harm comes in many forms and can be really damaging to a person’s physical and mental health. There are many reasons people engage in self-harm, but it is most often used as a way of coping with difficult emotions.


Strategies and Skills to try to overcome the Urge to Self-Harm

DISTRACTION: Use Your Imagination

Think of a positive fantasy that you’ve got and really get into it, provided that it does not involve self-harm. Imagine you are successfully dealing with your problems. Imagine that you are in a peaceful place, such as sitting on a grassy field by a gently flowing stream on a dry, warm day. Imagine all of the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and touch sensations that you might have in this positive fantasy scenario.

Smiling girl at the beach. She is feeling the wind on her face, and the sand on her feet, and listening to the waves crash on the shore.DISTRACTION: Create Strong Sensations

  • Touch – Run cold or very warm water on your hands. Hold ice until it melts. Slowly rub “nice smelling” moisturiser over your arms and legs. Take a warm bubble bath. Get a massage. Play with your favourite pet. Relax in the sun. Hug a friend or loved one. Put on soft clothing with a soothing texture.
  • Taste – Suck on a strongly flavoured mint. Sip on a cup of hot chocolate or other hot drink. Eat an icy pole or ice cream. Eat your favourite “comfort food”. Eat some dark chocolate (this releases “feel good” chemicals). Eat a piece of fresh fruit or yoghurt.
  • Smell – Slice an onion and smell the fumes. Pick different spices to smell. Burn incense or a scented candle. Inhale the aroma of lavender or vanilla. Breathe in fresh air. Smell fresh coffee beans or freshly made coffee.
  • Sight – Focus your attention on a captivating image. Look at pictures that make you feel happy. Look at pictures of loved ones. Go to the beach and watch the waves, or go to the park and watch the leaves in the trees moving in the wind. Watch the sunset or watch the clouds moving in the sky. Watch a happy film or an episode of your favourite comedy show.
  • Sound – Listen to loud music (avoid music with dark themes), listen to relaxing music, listen to birds singing, take a walk and listen to the sounds of nature.


Do something you enjoy that will keep you busy. Distract yourself with enjoyable activities in the house, or go out and do something. Watch a  television show or movie (a comedy or one with a happy theme) that grabs your attention. Distract your mind with one of your hobbies, like arts and crafts or puzzles and games. Do some work or study.


Find a quiet place where you will be relatively free from distractions and unlikely to be bothered by anyone. Sit in a comfortable position. Write down how strong your urge to self-harm is, on a scale from 0 (zero – no urge at all) to 10 (ten – the strongest urge you’ve ever had). Then write down how much you feel as if you can handle your urge on a scale from 0 (zero – cannot take it for one more second) to 10 (ten – could handle it for ten hours straight if you had to).

Then imagine you are standing on a surfboard on the ocean in a warm tropical place. You can see the white, sandy shore in front of you. There is a slight breeze and you can smell the salt of the ocean. There are a few fluffy, white clouds in the sky. The sun feels warm on your back. Really transport your mind to this scene. Now imagine that your urge to harm yourself is the wave that you are riding. Really notice what the urge feels like in your body. Focus on the sensations you feel (for example, tightness in your muscles or your heart beating fast). Now imagine you are surfing the wave, and the wave is your urge. As your urge rises and becomes stronger, the wave gets higher. But keep surfing on top of it. Imagine you are an excellent surfer who can handle any wave that comes your way. Remember to keep focusing on your body and the sensations you feel. As the urge gets stronger and stronger, the wave gets higher and higher until it crests. Imagine that you are riding the wave to shore. As you watch and surf the wave, notice what happens to it. Notice if it gets higher and stronger, or starts getting lower and weaker. When it gets weaker, imagine that you are sliding with your surfboard in to shore. When it starts to build up again, imagine that you are back out there on the wave, just riding it. Keep doing this for about ten minutes or so. Or keep doing it until you feel as if you have a handle on the urge and will not act on it.

At the end write down how strong your urge is on a scale from 0 (zero) to 10 (ten). Also, write down how much you feel as if you can handle your urge on a scale from 0 (zero) to 10 (ten). REMEMBER: if surfing the imaginary wave does not work for you, you can also do this exercise by simply noticing how the physical sensations of the urge come and go.


Do intensive physical exercise. Do other intense physical activities, for example cleaning or gardening. Do progressive muscle relaxation, which is focusing on  tensing and relaxing each muscle group from head to toe.


Enlist a Support Team

There is always someone who cares about you. This may be a family member, a friend, a doctor, or a counsellor. Tell someone how you are feeling. Tell them you want to stop self-harming. Say this aloud to anyone you trust.

One teenage girl comforting her friend who is crying.

  • Let members of your team know the best way you think they should respond when you are at risk for self-harm. Tell them what will and won’t work for you.
  • Ask your support person to “check in” with you every now and then to see how you are doing, just in case you are feeling down and not actively seeking support.
  • Work with your support person to come up with milestones on your journey to recovery. Then, each time you reach one of these milestones take time to celebrate with your support person. Encouragement is really important in stopping self-harming.


Create a List of Benefits of Stopping Self-Harm

You can create this list by yourself, or ask a support person to help you come up with a list of reasons not to self harm. Come up with as many as you can. Once you have a complete list, carry it with you at all times and read it whenever your motivation to stop self-harming wavers. Some benefits can include:

  • You won’t worry about hiding parts of your body you have harmed.
  • You won’t scare loved ones any more or make them worry.
  • You may feel proud of yourself for resisting self-harm.
  • Your tolerance to your emotions will grow.
  • You may have more self-confidence when talking to other people.
  • No more new scars!
  • You will have more time and energy to spend on the things in your life.
  • You can learn other ways of solving your problems and coping with your emotions.
  • It is a big step to feeling better about yourself in the long run.


Seek Help

Professional help– There are a number of professional treatments available if you talk to a doctor, counsellor, or psychologist. By talking to an expert you’re able to get a tailored treatment plan that will be adapted to your individual circumstances.
Use online and phone services– If you’d rather not talk to someone face-to-face, check out info on support services like Kids Helpline, Lifeline, and eHeadspace which provide both phone and online support services.



Melbourne Youth Clinic, Overcoming Self-Harm Factsheet, 2013.

Reachout, What is Self-Harm?, au.reachout.com/what-is-self-harm, 18 June 2014.

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