8 Alternatives to Self-Harming

June 2, 2023

Self-harm is a difficult and complex issue to navigate, especially for teens struggling with mental health. People often self-harm as a coping mechanism, as it can provide temporary relief from intense emotions such as anger, sadness, distress, or numbness. It can help those feel more in control when they are overwhelmed or can be a way to self-punish. Even so, self-harm is an incredibly dangerous way to cope.

Self-harm can lead to disastrous medical situations if one was to injure themselves severely or even irreparably. Scarring from self-harm can make one self-conscious and further isolate themselves, preventing them from getting help. Despite this, self-harming can be difficult to stop, especially when one does not know any other ways to effectively cope.

So, here are 10 alternatives to self-harming.

1.    Ice It Out

You’ve heard of icing for pain relief, but did you know that icing can help with emotional pain too? Cold temperatures can stimulate your vagus nerve, a nerve that runs from our brainstem to our pelvis. Icing this cranial nerve can calm your nervous system, which controls your heart rate, blood pressure, and even your mood.

When you can feel your heart pumping out of your chest or need to shock yourself out of intense emotions, try:

  • Taking a cold shower
  • Holding onto an ice cube
  • Dunk your head in an ice bath
  • Get an ice pack and place it on your face or neck

While you’re icing things out, another effective trick can be to freeze your self-harming tools. When you want to use it, you’re forced to wait for the ice to melt. This waiting period can force you to reconsider and also give you time for your overwhelming feelings to pass.

2.    Run (or Exercise in General)

Not everyone wants to exercise when they’re going through a rough time, but working out can help you physically release from any emotional pressure building up inside you. For those aerobically inclined, the idea of actually outrunning your problems can also be therapeutic.

Exercise provides a healthy outlet for feelings, and exercising regularly can also help build resilience against the emotions that may plague you. Even if you don’t exercise regularly, some research suggests that a single session can help immediately relieve anxiety. Studies found that exercise lessens stress-induced responses by activating the front regions of our brains.


3.    Make Your Body a Canvas

Sometimes getting rid of the urge to self-harm needs some visual assistance. Using red paint or a red marker to mark the places you’d like to self-harm can be helpful in satisfying the compulsion to. Some find it sufficient to just mark the places, others prefer actually drawing out pretend wounds.

A popular self-harm alternative trend that utilizes this method is the “Butterfly Project”. This is when you draw butterflies in the areas that you’d like to self-harm. If the butterfly fades naturally, that means it lived a full and happy life. If you self-harm on the butterflies, then its life has been ended short.

When compassion for yourself fails, compassion for other living things can help aid you even if the “living thing” isn’t real. For those who don’t want to draw butterflies, writing the names of the people you love on your self-harm areas can be just as effective while reminding you of who loves you and that you are not alone.

4.    Eat Something Sour or Spicy

This might seem silly, but spicy or sour foods are sharp enough sensations to help take your mind off of things. Just make sure they are spicy or sour enough to effectively distract you from how you’re feeling. Moreover, the pain element of sour and spicy food can satisfy the desire to hurt yourself. Eating spicy food can also release endorphins and dopamine, which can give additional relief from the emotional pain you are feeling.

5.    Give Yourself Time

Apply the same principle as waiting for the ice to melt when you freeze your self-harm tools. Tell yourself that you are only allowed to self-harm after you finish an activity of your choice. When you’re done, set another activity and then another until the urge to self-harm goes away.

Some examples are:

  • “I will not self-harm until I am done with my laundry.”
  • “I will not self-harm until I have made and finished my dinner.”
  • “I will not self-harm until I come back from the gym.”
  • “I will not self-harm until after I dye my hair.”

6.    Occupy Your Hands

Busy hands can’t hurt you. Keep your hands occupied with other activities until the desire to self-harm goes away. Preferably creative activities, so that it can distract you from overwhelming thoughts and feelings.

Some suggestions are:

  • Origami
  • Drawing
  • Knitting/Crocheting
  • Jewelry making
  • Rubik’s cube
  • Puzzles
  • Playing an instrument
  • Pottery


7.    Get Creative

We keep circling back to getting creative, and for good reason. Art can be a great outlet for feelings and thoughts that you can’t verbalize. You don’t need to be artistic to participate, you just need to be willing.

As well as the suggestions from the previous point, you can write a poem or a song, make a sculpture, build a model, collage, or take photographs on a walk. Whatever your creative interests are, find a way to let out your pent-up feelings through that medium.

For those who are afraid that being artistic won’t be as physically cathartic, don’t forget that art can be as intense or as involved as you want it to be. This means you can tear up your canvas and throw paint at it to make it a destructive piece. You can scream at the top of your lungs for a song you made. Work at your piece of clay by slamming it down on the table and kneading it.

When artists say they put their blood, sweat, and tears into a piece, some of them mean it literally!

8.    Rely on the People Who Love You

If you’re having a hard time loving yourself, get help from the people who already love you. It can be incredibly difficult to reach out for help when you’re going through a vulnerable and scary time, but you deserve to be good to yourself even if you don’t believe it yet.

You can start by asking a trusted person to hold onto your self-harm tools for you. Or, ask them to physically be present with you so that you are not tempted to self-injure. If you’d like a hug or for someone to hold your hand, physical touch from someone else can be grounding. If not, simply having a presence next to you can be enough to stop this unhealthy coping mechanism.

You don’t need to disclose your self-harm to reach out for help. You can call a loved one and have a conversation to distract yourself. Hang out with someone to make sure your hands and your mind are engaged in whatever activity you decide to do.

However much or little you want to involve them, just having your loved ones there can be enough to remind you that you are not alone. Being surrounded by the people who love you can remind you that you deserve to love yourself too.

If you or a loved one are concerned about self-harming and other coinciding mental health issues, Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center is equipped to help you break this unhealthy behavior pattern. With individualized evidence-based treatment, the goals and safety of each client will always be prioritized in our care. For more information, please contact our admissions team today.