Valarie struggled for years with anxiety, and to cope, she used the unhealthy combination of drugs and self harm, cutting herself every night. Self harm is a coping mechanism for some people, a way to deal with the pain of anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions. However, it’s only a temporary solution to a much deeper problem.
The comfort someone may get from cutting, bruising, burning or otherwise hurting themselves doesn’t last. The painful feelings return, often accompanied by guilt or shame over the self harm.
But what if there was another way? The self harming behavior can be replaced with a healthier behavior that offers a different way of coping. There are many alternatives to self harm that people can use to help them better manage and express their thoughts and feelings.
Before replacing the self harm action, however, people need to first examine the reason why they are hurting themselves, said clinician Nicole Paglione. Are they distracting themselves from the larger issue that’s bothering them? Are they grappling with how to communicate their distress about a mental health condition? Are they just trying to feel something, anything, that will cut through the numb feeling they can’t shake? Are they cutting themselves as a form of punishment? Once people determine the need that self harm fulfills for them, they can find an appropriate substitution.
Things to Do Instead of Self Harm
The key to finding an alternative to self harm is breaking old patterns. The negative habit needs to be replaced with a positive one. Are there certain circumstances where someone hurts themselves? If it happens in their bathroom in the afternoon, for instance, the first thing the person should do is break that pattern and be outside the house or in another room in the afternoon. If someone keeps a small penknife in their car for cutting, they should replace the knife with something soft and rounded, such as a stress ball.
Paglione urges people to take a pause when they feel the urge to self harm and fill it with something positive. There’s a wide variety of things to do instead of cutting, burning or other types of self harm. Here are some options people can try to see what works best for them.
- Dance around the house to loud, upbeat music
- Clean the house while listening to a podcast, audiobook or music
- Create a playlist of favorite songs and sing along
- Color a page in a coloring book geared towards adults
- Try to let the urge pass; read a book or watch TV for 15 to 20 minutes to see if the impulse for self harm goes away
- Start a new hobby
- Throw or punch a pillow to release tension and stress
- Create a handmade work of art—paint, draw, knit, etc. Art is a good outlet for expressing emotions, Paglione said
- Learn another language with a smartphone app
- Work on a jigsaw puzzle or play a game
- Designate a safe space to go to avoid self harm (e.g., library, coffee shop, park, etc.)
- Place a bandage over the area of the body that sustains the most self harm
To get calm and relaxed…
- Stay centered and grounded with a stress ball, can of slime, smooth rock or other soft, rounded object that can be held during moments when the impulse for self harm rises up
- Exercise regularly; endorphins produced during physical activity help elevate mood
- Cuddle with a pet
- Hug a family member
- Go on a hike or walk outdoors
- Practice meditation daily to feel centered and more mindful
- Make a cup of tea, then sit and savor it, paying attention to all the sensations of the experience
- Practice deep breathing exercises to lower a racing heart rate and calm nerves when stressed
- Take a soothing bath or use a skincare face mask for some self care
To express inner thoughts and feelings…
- Cry it out until the tears have dried up
- Keep a journal for writing down thoughts and feelings, as well as explorations of the self harm triggers
- Yell out the problem as loud as possible; scream into a pillow to not disturb the neighbors
- Name and identify the feelings, instead of avoiding them by cutting or burning
- Have a friend on standby who can be called or come over to listen and help
- Go to a therapy session with a professional counselor
- Keep a gratitude journal to maintain a positive outlook and remember all the things to be thankful for in life
- Call a hotline if the urge for self harm is accompanied by suicidal thoughts
What To Do When You Want to Self Harm?
Some people try these alternatives but still crave the sensation of pain. They may need a transitional method that gives them a similar feeling without causing actual harm. One way to do this for people who are asking, are there alternatives to cutting yourself, is to substitute the sharp object they normally use for a felt tip pen. The pen can be used to “scratch” the surface of the skin or create designs. A red pen will even mimic the appearance of blood.
Some people report satisfaction with scrubbing their arms or legs with hot, soapy water or sliding an ice cube on their bare skin. Snapping a rubber band worn on the wrist or clapping hands until they hurt and the palms turn red may also be useful. Or just take a ballpoint pen and scratch or doodle on a piece of paper as a way to avoid self harm. It’s crucial to seek professional help during this time to continue making progress towards healthier alternatives to self harm.
Valarie worked hard to get sober and stop her self harm habits. As Valarie has done this, she’s discovered she’s not alone. She feels hopeful about the future because she’s developed healthier coping skills. Paglione, the clinician, urges anyone who is adopting healthier strategies to celebrate their achievements so that they keep moving forward. Viewers who are trying to better understand their own self harm habits can visit TAG. This innovative streaming service features videos of people discussing their mental health journeys as well as clinicians sharing their professional expertise. There’s no stigma or judgment—just acceptance and an openness to learn. Visit TAG to watch Valarie’s story.