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Finding Alternatives to Self-Harm

Better to inflict pain on myself than to let other people do it. –Tracy Thompson, The Beast: A Reckoning with Depression

People self-harm for many reasons.  Often people who engage in self-harm behaviors have been victims of abuse or have otherwise had experiences in which they felt helpless to control their emotions and circumstances.  The ability to harm yourself is the ultimate control over your own body.  For some, it is the only control they feel they have.

For others, self-harm provides a relief from emotional pain.  Many report emotional torment prior to self-harm and an absence of feeling during and after the self-harm.  The self-harm, at least momentarily, seems to distract from or alleviate extreme feelings of like loneliness, depression, rage and humiliation.

Self-harm is often a physical sign of emotional pain.  Many feel their emotional pain is unacknowledged, misunderstood or ignored by others.  The physical act of damaging their own bodies validates the intense emotional pain they are in.

Self-harm can also be a powerful communicator.  Self-harm is a clear indicator that something is wrong.  Some self-harm when they are unsuccessful getting the help that they desperately need.  At times initial self-harm elicits help from those around them.

The Problem With Self Harm

The problem with self-harm as a coping mechanism is that the relief from emotional pain is brief.  The pain returns along with guilt, humiliation and, sometimes, self-hate.  It may begin by giving a sense of control, but over time, most report that it increases a sense of being out-of-control.  Although it communicates an intense need for help and often initially elicits help, it’s ultimately a poor communicator.  People don’t necessarily understand what is being communicated through the self-harm, are unable to help solve problems that they don’t understand and ultimately view the self-harm as problematic.

Alternatives to Self Harm

Self-harm can be viewed as a coping mechanism for intense, painful emotion.  In order to change the behavior, it’s necessary to find alternative ways to tolerate and lesson emotions.

Tolerate the Moment.  Different strategies work for different people, but a few options to try, include:

  • distract with anything from exercise and cleaning to holding ice and taking a hot (but not scalding) shower.
  • Self Soothe.  Surround yourself with soothing sounds smells, tastes, tactile objects and sights.
  • Change the moment by using techniques like imagery, prayer and relaxation to change how your body and mind are responding to the moment.

Lesson or Balance Emotions. There are many different ways to manage emotions, with entire books written on the topic.  A few things that may help even out the extremes include:

  • Get Balanced Sleep
  • Eat Balanced Meals
  • Avoid Alcohol and Drugs
  • Exercise
  • Engage in activities that make you feel competent and capable
  • Take care of your physical health.

These are just a few of many techniques to help cope with the overwhelming emotion that frequently in connected to self-harm.  Many more skills are taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Groups and Therapy.  If you want to change this behavior, seeking help is one of the most important steps you can take.  Talking with a therapist or physician can help get connected to treatment.

Finding Alternatives to Self-Harm

Christy Matta, MA

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APA Reference
Matta, C. (2010). Finding Alternatives to Self-Harm. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Jun 2010
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