Distraction Techniques and Alternative Coping Strategies

— Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults
Updated on Mar 14, 2011

Self-injury is sometimes used as a way of coping with negative events and feelings. It is often used as a result of not having learned how to identify or express difficult feelings in a more healthy way. Finding new ways of coping with difficult feelings can help to suppress the urges that lead to self-injury and may help in the recovery process. Focusing on identifying feelings and challenging the thoughts that lead to self-injury can be helpful. Seeking outside professional assistance or engaging in individual therapy may be a good idea as well. Stopping is easier if you can find other ways of expressing or coping with your feelings.

You can ask yourself the following questions which may help you to identify the negative feelings or situations that lead to self-injury:

  • What was going on in my life when I first began to injure myself?
  • How do I feel just before I want to injure myself? 
  • What are my habits and routines? Am I always in the same place or with a particular person when I get the urge to injure myself? 
  • Do I always feel the same emotion when I get the urge to injure myself?
  • How can I better deal with the situations that trigger me?

You may want to keep a diary in which you write down your feelings at different times so that you can better answer these questions.

I want to stop self-injuring but I still have urges. What do I do instead?

Distract yourself or use a substitution behavior.Many report that just delaying an urge to self-injure by several minutes can be enough to make the urge fade away. One way to increase the chances of a distraction or substitution helping calm the urge to self-injure is to match what you do to how you are feeling at the moment. It may be helpful to keep a list on hand so that when you get the urge to self-injure you can go down the list and find something that feels right to you in the moment. See examples of alternatives below.

Feeling angry:

  • Flatten aluminum cans for recycling, seeing how fast you can go. 
  • Hit a punching bag. 
  • Use a pillow to hit a wall, pillow-fight style. 
  • Dance. 
  • Clean.
  • Exercise. 
  • Bang pots and pans. 
  • Stomp around in heavy shoes. 
  • Play handball or tennis. 
  • Run, jump, skip, lift weights, ride your bike, swim – anything that helps you move the angry energy through and out of your body.

Feeling sad or depressed:

  • Do something slow and soothing.
  • Take a hot bath with bath oil or bubbles. 
  • Curl up under a comforter with hot cocoa and a good book. 
  • Baby yourself somehow. 
  • Give yourself a present. 
  • Hug a loved one or stuffed animal. 
  • Play with a pet. 
  • Make a list of things that make you happy. 
  • Do something nice for someone else. 
  • Light sweet-smelling incense. 
  • Listen to soothing music. 
  • Smooth nice body lotion into the parts of yourself you want to hurt. 
  • Call a friend and just talk about things that you like. 
  • Make a tray of special treats. 
  • Watch TV or read. 
  • Visit a friend.
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