What to do when you want to self-harm.

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard

Trigger warning: This post describes descriptions of and alternatives to self-harm and may be triggering for some people.


Self-harm is unfortunately very common, especially in adolescents and young adults. People who self-harm are not attempting suicide, seeking attention, or being dramatic. Instead, they may use self-harm as a way to deal with overwhelming or very difficult feelings. They may find that self-harm makes their emotional pain more tolerable by transforming it into physical pain. Or if they are feeling emotionally numb, they may engage in self-harm as a way of just feeling something (even something painful).


Self-harm includes intentionally injuring yourself by doing things like cutting, scratching, burning, overdosing on medications, or really anything else that could cause injury, no matter how minor it may seem. Sometimes self-harm involves taking unnecessary risks or putting yourself into potentially dangerous situations on purpose.


Sometimes people ask me why they can’t just self-harm if it makes them feel better in the short term. After all, they argue that they aren’t really hurting anyone else. But even if that is true, it is still important to break the self-harm cycle. Self-harm can lead to short-term relief, but it also increases feelings of guilt, shame, loss of control, and isolation. This can become a vicious cycle. The more we self-harm, the worse we feel over time, and the stronger the urge to self-harm again in the future.


Here are some ways to break the cycle. I’ll be honest- none of these interventions are likely to provide the same amount of short-term relief that you get from self-harm. But the purpose is to get you to engage in something that will bring enough relief to help you ride out some of those overwhelming emotions until they can pass. You may have to do these substitutes multiple times or cycle through several of them until you feel relief. It takes a lot of practice, but over time you can learn to cope in a more constructive way.


Things to do instead when you want to self-harm:

  1. Draw on yourself with a washable red marker in the place you want to self-harm.

  2. Use a thin ballpoint pen to draw lines where you want to cut.

  3. Cover the place you want to self-harm with bandaids, temporary tattoos or stickers.

  4. Write down what you are feeling, and then rip the paper into really tiny pieces.

  5. Go outside and find something beautiful in nature.

  6. Snap your wrist with a hairband or rubber band.

  7. Tweeze your eyebrows.

  8. Play or snuggle with a pet.

  9. Paint your fingernails or toenails.

  10. Put glue on the spot where you want to self-harm. Let it dry and then peel it off.

  11. Throw pillows or socks at the wall as hard as you can.

  12. Do jumping jacks (or some other form of exercise) until you feel tired.

  13. Squeeze an ice cube in your hand.

  14. Take a cold shower or put your face in ice water.

  15. Blast a song that fits your mood.

  16. Rub an ice cube over the place where you want to self-harm.

  17. Tear pages out of an old book or magazine.

  18. Put something spicy or bitter in your mouth.

  19. Clap your hands together until they sting.

  20. Wash or put nice-smelling lotion on the area where you want to cut.


Have any of these suggestions helped you? Are there any other methods that you use to make it through the desire to self-harm?

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