When painful or difficult emotions threaten to overwhelm you, self-harm can offer a way to:
- regain a sense of control
- feel something when you’re otherwise numb
- express or distract yourself from unwanted emotions
- punish yourself
Still, while self-harm might offer some temporary relief, it also comes with plenty of risks:
- If you cut too deeply or burn yourself severely, you might need immediate medical care.
- You could feel guilty, embarrassed, or helpless later on.
- Worrying what people think about self-harming behaviors can lead you to hesitate instead of reaching out for support that could make a difference.
Even when you know self-harm isn’t an ideal coping method and want to stop, you might find it hard to think of anything else during a moment of distress. We get it. It’s all too easy to reach for the one thing you know will help, even if only for a little while.
When you don’t feel up to identifying new coping strategies, this guide can come in handy. Below, you’ll find 7 evidence-backed tips to help you through your next painful moment, along with some guidance for when you feel most overwhelmed.
If you need help now
If you need someone to talk to in a moment of distress, trained, compassionate crisis counselors can listen and offer support with finding helpful ways to cope.
When you feel like self-harming, take a moment to ask yourself why.
Getting a clearer idea of the emotions behind the impulse can lead you to an alternative way to cope:
- Feeling angry? Physical activities could help burn off those intense emotions.
- Feeling lonely, isolated, or ignored? Connecting with people who care about you could help ease both loneliness and the desire to self-harm.
- Feeling numb? Activities that produce pleasant physical sensations, like bathing or showering, eating food you enjoy, or spending time outside, might be the way to go.
Changing your environment can offer a distraction and give you enough time away from self-harm tools that the urge might pass before you return.
Time in nature also has a calming effect, so try simple outings like:
- wandering through your neighborhood
- visiting a nearby park
- stopping by a favorite place that helps you feel calm and at peace
It’s absolutely OK to start slow and progress in small steps.
Not sure about going outside? Try sitting next to an open window to feel the fresh air on your face. From there, you might move to sit on the porch or just outside your door.
Physical activity can also offer a distraction that helps lift a low mood and relieves some of the most intense pressure of overwhelming thoughts. Many people who self-harm
Working out might be the last thing you feel like doing, of course, and there’s no need to force yourself to head to the gym.
Instead, try simple, low-key exercise that doesn’t require a lot of energy or equipment:
- Try a simple dance or yoga routine. Tip: Find free videos on YouTube.
- Do some basic stretches while listening to music or watching a favorite TV show.
- If you have a dog, head out for a long ramble. If you don’t, consider connecting with a friend who does and taking a walk together.
- Take a quick, short jog.
Crowded environments occasionally feel overwhelming, but sometimes, the background noise and commotion of other people can provide a sense of community and safety and help you feel less alone.
Simply being around others can offer a distraction that
You can safely coexist even while COVID-19 safety guidelines remain in place, especially outdoors:
- Treat yourself to a coffee, snack, or lunch and enjoy it at a park or other natural setting.
- Visit a bookshop, library, music store, museum, or other place you enjoy (while wearing a mask and following the 6-feet rule).
- Write in your journal or listen to music outdoors.
- Invite roommates to watch a movie or TV show.
Opening up about how you feel isn’t always easy, but it often helps to start by sharing with just one person, someone you trust to offer support without judgment.
If you can’t see your loved one in person, try pandemic-friendly options like Zoom or a good, old-fashioned telephone call.
Video chats and FaceTime may not feel quite the same as hanging out in person, but the extra layer of distance they provide could potentially make it easier to open up about difficult emotions.
Music often provides a temporary escape from painful and overwhelming feelings:
- Turning your attention to the lyrics and rhythm can help you focus on something other than your distress.
- Listening to music could help you regulate and process upsetting emotions.
Putting on a favorite playlist could help you pause the urge to self-harm long enough work through what you’re feeling and identify other ways to cope.
The type of music you choose does matter, though. When feeling down, overwhelmed, or lonely, you might prefer to listen to songs that match your mood.
- upbeat or energizing music — think workout, feel-good, or “Get Up!” playlists.
- classical music, or
a mix of classical and jazz
- soothing or relaxing music (depending on your personal tastes, this might include New Age, Celtic, or spa and meditation music)
- nature sounds
You can find pre-mixed playlists on Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube.
As an alternative to music, try the spoken word with a podcast or audiobook. The nostalgic words of a classic or childhood favorite — even one you’ve read many times before — can offer a comforting distraction.
You’ll often hear meditation recommended as a strategy for coping with painful or distressing thoughts. Still, meditation doesn’t help everyone all the time. If you’re already feeling pretty distressed, you might find that it even intensifies certain thoughts, including the urge to self-harm.
Guided imagery offers an alternative approach that may help.
This visual approach to relaxation helps you create a mental “happy place” by creating pleasant scenes in your mind. Adding vivid, specific sensory details to your mental image can help you release stress, take your mind off the urge to self-harm, and promote feelings of peace and calm.
When communicating emotions through words feels impossible, art offers another way to express yourself and redirect the urge to self-harm.
Art can also offer benefits you may not get with other coping techniques:
- Creative work can offer a sense of control, since you choose what to express and how.
- Art allows you to express distress with your hands, in a real, physical way.
- When you’re finished, you have a record of your feelings you can then destroy.
Art doesn’t just help you process painful emotions. When you devote your attention to a creative project that utilizes all of your skills, you might find yourself completely engaged in what’s called a flow state.
In a state of flow, other feelings — hunger, exhaustion, pain, fear, emotional distress — tend to dwindle and fade into the background. Flow states can also boost motivation, satisfaction, and other positive feelings.
Any kind of creative activity can help you get your feelings out in the open: drawing, painting, doodling, even molding clay.
It might feel tough to get started when you’re in a place of pain and distress, but here, too, there’s no harm in starting small. Just pick up a pencil and paper, or any medium you prefer, and start by scribbling. Even this simple, not-very-artistic approach can offer some distraction and relief.
Other ideas to try:
- Give your pain a shape and illustrate it.
- Draw or sculpt something that provides a sense of safety or protection.
- Picture a place that makes you happy and put it on paper.
Mental health professionals and other care providers often recommend harm minimization strategies and grounding techniques as alternatives to self-harm.
These tactics do work for some people, but research suggests others find them mostly unhelpful.
When these strategies don’t relieve the urge, you might be more inclined to believe that other coping methods will also fail. As a result, you might feel less willing to try coping methods that really might help when you want to self-harm.
Again, harm minimization techniques do help some people, especially as short-term solutions, so it’s often worth trying them out. Just keep in mind that other strategies, like the ones discussed above, may help even more.
Harm minimization strategies include:
- snapping rubber bands on your wrist
- pinching yourself
- drawing or painting red lines on your skin
- holding ice
- running your hands under warm or cold water
- eating sour or spicy candies
- squeezing a stress ball
- punching a pillow or cushion
- screaming into a pillow
Harm minimization tactics can also include safer self-harm practices, such as:
- sterilizing self-harm tools
- treating injuries immediately afterward
- only self-harming when you have someone you trust with you
- reducing self-harm intensity (you might scratch yourself instead of cutting, for example)
These tactics might help when you aren’t quite ready to stop self-harming but want to stay safe as you begin exploring alternative coping strategies.
While coping strategies can help reduce the impulse to self-harm, they generally don’t resolve the underlying causes of emotional turmoil. That means your desire to self-harm might resurface again and again.
Support from a trained, compassionate therapist is often key to lasting change and improvement. Therapy offers a safe space to explore painful emotions and other self-harm triggers and begin identifying lasting solutions.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.