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Five Distraction Techniques to Overcome Self-Harm Urges

Finlay Games shares candid first-hand experiences of recovery from mental illness and addiction, and of his transition as a transgender man.


What Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is the process whereby a person inflicts damage or injury to themselves, as a way of coping with overwhelming emotions.

Is It Possible to Overcome Self-Harm?

Overcoming self-harm is possible but it is a difficult process because initially, the urges to hurt yourself can be compelling. Therefore, one of the first steps in overcoming self-harm is to find ways to distract yourself from the compulsion.

Using Distraction Techniques to Deal With Self-Harm Urges

There are several ways you might distract yourself to keep yourself safe. Here are five ideas to get you started on your recovery journey, to overcome self-harm.

1) Build a Distraction Box

Having something to do with your hands can help to distract yourself from wanting to self-harm. A helpful idea is to find a small box, such as a shoe box or biscuit tin, and then fill it with small items. For example you could buy some small puzzles and games for the box. Games such as mini block puzzles, are a great distraction as they can help to keep your mind and hands occupied and also give you a feeling of achievement. Other ideas for small items include:

  • Pocket games
  • A stress-ball
  • Stickers to decorate the box
  • Modelling clay

Anything small that you can fiddle with works well in a self-harm distraction box. You can build this box up over time as you recover which can also serve as a reminder of how many times you managed not to act on your impulse to hurt yourself.

2) Start a Collection Hobby

A hobby is another excellent way to distract yourself. For recovery, the best collection hobby is one you can do at home so that you don’t have to place yourself in situations which may overwhelm you further. Choosing hobbies that involve sorting are the best kind to help distract you. It is also a good idea to pick a hobby where the item you are collecting is easy to obtain. There are many classic collection hobbies such as:

  • Stamp collecting
  • Coin collecting
  • Postcards
  • Key-chains

Coin collecting, for example, is an easy one to start, as coins are readily available. There are also websites such as Check Your Change, to help you to learn which designs are available to collect so that you can cross them off as you find them. The act of sorting out coin designs and placing them in a variety of coin sleeves to organise them and display them, is a fantastic way to distract yourself.

3) Use Art and Creativity as a Self-Harm Distraction

Art can be a great way to not only distract from self-harm but also to help you work through your emotions. The act of putting a pen to a page can be very cathartic. You do not have to worry about being a talented artist; this isn't about perfection. You can buy pre-made adult colouring books with designs already drawn for you. Adult colouring books come in a variety of types. Whether you prefer designs such as mandalas, or pictures of objects and animals, there are lots of adult colouring books to choose from.

4) Use Self-Soothing as a Distraction

Learning how to self-soothe is a beneficial skill to develop. As self-harm urges often arise in response to overwhelming feelings, finding ways to calm those feelings can help to avoid acting on urges. Self-soothing means doing anything which you find relaxing, and that calms you, such as:

  • Curling up on the sofa with a book
  • Watching a film
  • Soaking in a warm bubble bath with soft lighting and candles
  • Going for a gentle walk
  • Listening to music

Everyone has different things that help them to feel relaxed. You can take your time and experiment with ideas, to find what works best for you.

Person reading with a cup of tea

Person reading with a cup of tea

5) Writing Down Your Feelings When Self-Harm Urges Arise

Being overwhelmed with emotions and thoughts can make the urge to self-harm feel overpowering. A helpful way to deal with immediate emotions could be to write these down in a notebook or journal. Starting a journal can help in many ways. You can use the journal as a place to write down your thoughts and make sense of them. You can also use the journal to track your self- harm thoughts and behaviours, to better understand your triggers and to see the progress you make. Additionally, the act of writing in a journal also serves as another distraction technique.

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Every Journey Starts With a Single Step

By practising some of these techniques, you will gradually find out which methods work best for you. Exploring different ways to cope with stressful and overwhelming emotions, helps us to get to know ourselves better. Understanding ourselves and what works for us, can help us to break free of the compulsion to self-harm and help us on the road to recovery.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Sarah B on April 13, 2019:

Really good ideas, would also work for general anxiety too I think making them useful for many people!

Sonni on April 13, 2019:

Such a good idea Finn and so well out together!

Louisa (madcoogirl) on April 13, 2019:

Brilliant article Finn, some great distraction techniques that really work.

Christine on April 13, 2019:

This is a fantastic article to help those in need,there are many very simple strategies that many do not even think about doing while they are in distress.

Thank you once again for reaching out to help others from life experience, you are a living angel. Much love

Finlay Games (author) from Eastbourne, East Sussex on April 13, 2019:

@Tony yes, exercise is a fantastic tool, a distraction and also a mood lifter!

Finlay Games (author) from Eastbourne, East Sussex on April 13, 2019:

Thank you so much @lynneMorris!

Lynne Morris on April 13, 2019:

A very helpful article with good sound advice

Tony on April 13, 2019:

Some good tips and tricks, you are right we all have copeing strategies we turn to, I find exercise is a great way to sort my head out

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