What You Can Do When You Feel Like Self-Harming

"The scars you can't see are the ones that hurt the most." -Michelle Hodkin, The Becoming of Noah Shaw

If you feel an urge to hurt yourself at times, you're not alone. Some studies have shown that as many as 20 percent of high-school students and 40 percent of college students have self-harmed at some point. Self-harm, or non-suicidal self-injury, includes things like cutting or burning your skin, banging your head against a wall, picking at wounds on your skin, or anything you feel an urge to do that causes damage to your body. But even though non-suicidal self-injury is common, especially for younger people, some people still have a hard time talking about it. And thanks to that silence, some of us don't realize that it's possible to replace self-harm with something else. Self-injury is meeting a need for you right now, otherwise you wouldn't feel that urge. But maybe there's another way to reach that same goal. To find out, you'll have to get curious.

Get curious – What need does self-harm meet for you?
The first step to replacing non-suicidal self-injury with something else is determining why you feel the desire to hurt yourself. What need is it meeting? Are you looking for a distraction from emotional pain? Feel uncomfortable in your body? Want to talk to someone, but don't have the words to start a conversation? "I know from experience that it does not work to simply replace self-harm without understanding what fuels the urges for the behavior," crisis counselor Lauren Coe writes in Psychology Today. She suggests that when you feel an urge to self-harm, you explore it carefully. Why do you want to harm yourself? What will you get out of it? "Thinking about these things will better prepare you to explore alternatives to self-harm," Coe says.

Get creative – How else can you meet that need?
Once you know what self-harm is doing for you, it's time to get creative. On your own, or with the help of a trusted friend or counselor, brainstorm ways to address your needs without causing damage. Want to talk to someone but don't know how to start a conversation? Try sending a text to a few people you trust that says "I feel like hurting myself, and I need someone to talk to. Can you help?" Or call/text the national suicide hotline to talk to someone right away. Need to feel something to distract you from emotional pain? Try snapping a rubber band against your wrist to distract you without causing lasting damage. Need to bang your head against a wall to relieve stress? Can you put a pillow between your head and the wall so you can bang without bruising?

Alternatives to Try – Find what is helpful
Remember, a replacement for self-harm will only work if it meets your specific needs, so not all these ideas will be right for you. Scan through them, and see if something makes sense. Or maybe, after reading our brainstorm, you'll come up with an idea of your own. It's OK if it takes a little time to find the right replacement for self-injury. You're making progress just by thinking about it, and that's something to celebrate!

Distract yourself for a while. The urge to harm comes and goes for most people, and if you can put it off when it's strong, it will get weaker, and then finally pass. Coe says if she can convince herself to wait for 20 minutes, her desire to harm will often lessen. You can distract yourself in many ways:

  • Watching TV
  • Making a snack or cup of tea
  • Going for a walk
  • Taking a shower
  • Calling or texting a friend

Engage your senses in a soothing way. Some people self-harm because they hurt inside and want to feel something physically. If that's you, maybe you can find a comforting way to engage your senses instead of a painful one. Here are some ideas:

  • Go somewhere else – if you're inside, go out. If you're in your room, try the living room.
  • Give yourself a massage with scented oil
  • Take a bath or shower and wash your arms, or another part of your body with a scented soap you enjoy
  • Make a playlist for times like this and listen to it.
  • Curl up with a soft blanket, and maybe a good book.
  • Draw, paint, or color
  • Do a chore you can get lost in, like washing dishes with scented soap
  • Hold something in your hand, such as a smooth rock or a stress ball

Let out your anger. If self-harm is a way to relieve pent-up anger, look for other things you can do to release those feelings. A few ideas include:

  • Ripping up pieces of paper
  • An aggressive run or gym workout
  • Hitting a pillow or punching bag
  • Scribbling wildly in a notebook
  • Popping balloons
  • Smashing a tower of cardboard boxes
  • Dancing to music that matches your mood
  • Screaming and yelling in your pillow, your yard, or anywhere safe

Find a substitute sensation. If you can't seem to replace the experience of self-harming, try to replicate the sensation in ways that won't cause you lasting harm. Here are some options:

  • Gently snapping a rubber band against your wrist
  • Banging your head against a pillow or soft surface
  • Drawing on your skin with a red felt-tipped marker (pens are too sharp)
  • Rubbing a piece of ice on your skin
  • Clapping hard or stomping your feet loudly

Cry. It's OK to cry. A wise person once said that "crying is how your heart speaks when your lips can't explain the pain you feel." There's nothing shameful about it. It's healthy and healing. Find a safe place and let it all out. If it helps, you can watch a sad movie, or play music to help the tears get started.

Write about how you feel. Get a journal, and when you feel an urge to harm yourself, write it down. For Coe, it helps to describe her feelings in detail. "Sometimes the urge to self-harm can feel like a volcano erupting in my entire body and other times it's like an annoying itch that won't go away. Either way, it's better to put these feelings into words rather than let them fester inside," she says.

Connect with someone you love. Sometimes, knowing that you're loved and cared about can make a big difference. Text or call a trusted friend you've picked out ahead of time. But have a plan in case your friends don't respond to your call or text. Remind yourself that they love you and that you've started the conversation, which is a positive step. Hugging a loved one or a pet can help too. Snuggle up with your cat or dog, pet them, and listen to the relaxing purring or panting sounds. The sensation can be very healing.

Move. If you're inside, go out for a walk. If you've been sitting on your couch, do some exercises. Put on a song and just jump around while you listen. Moving makes it harder to self-harm and might provide a welcome distraction.

Self-harming can feel unavoidable. It can seem like the only way to cope with what you're going through. But keep trying to find another option. Use this list as a starting point, and it's only the beginning. Talk to your doctor, your mental health professional, or friends that you trust about ideas that might work for you. Find a way to give your brain the release it needs, and let your body heal. You can do this. We have faith in you.