4 Things You Can Do Instead of Self-Injure

Most people who self-injure do it as a way to cope with painful emotions, and it stems from a very natural desire we all have—the desire to feel better. The trouble is that the temporary relief you may feel from self-harm doesn’t last, and injuring yourself can put you at risk for infection, permanent scarring, and serious injury. It also doesn’t help you develop other ways to cope with difficult feelings that work better and don’t cause you harm. 

But that’s exactly what treatment for self-injury does. It teaches you skills to manage and move through tough times.

Learn Your Signs

One of the keys to learning new skills is to recognize the early warning signs that you are triggered or may be starting on the path toward self-injury. They can be subtle, but they’re almost always present if you know what to look for. 

They may show up first as emotions—a slow growing sense of emotional discomfort, agitation, or numbness. Sometimes the emotions happen quickly, before you have time to register them. Another early warning sign could be repeated, focused thoughts about a particular subject, or just repetitive negative thoughts. 

You may have other early warning signs you can figure out just by paying attention. What do you feel, think, or experience before the urge to self-injure comes up? 

Once you have a sense of your own early-detection system, you can try some of the things below instead of self-injuring.

Get Cold

If you notice you’re getting amped up, making yourself cold is a good choice. Cold temperatures narrow blood vessels, which slows your heart rate. The cold also helps you focus on the present moment, instead of getting lost in the swirling thoughts in your head. 

Try one of these:

  • Drink a glass of very cold water.
  • Drape a wet washcloth on your neck.
  • Splash your face with cold water if you’re near a bathroom.
  • Walk outside if the weather is chilly. 

Slow Everything Down

Your nervous system comes equipped with a simple process that helps your body and mind relax and return everything to a state of calm. (The scientific word for this part of our nervous systems is “parasympathetic.”) Slow, deep breaths are a way to trigger this relaxing response. It tells your body and mind that things are OK and you are not actually in danger.

Another option is slowing your breathing while tensing and releasing your muscles, which can release distress in your body and help you let go of the urge to self-harm.

Try these breathing exercises and see which one works best for you.

Distract Yourself

Another way to avoid self-injury is to deliberately distract yourself from emotions that could potentially trigger your urges. Some options:

  • Listening to a favorite or calming playlist
  • Reading a book
  • Going for a walk
  • Confiding in a friend
  • Counting backward from 200 by seven

Treat Yourself

Usually when people self-injure, they are seeking the feeling of relief that comes when they stop. Look for that same feeling without hurting yourself by doing something that makes your body feel relaxation and pleasure. What that is depends on what feels good to you. Some ideas:

  • Taking a warm bath or shower
  • Reading a fiction book that has nothing to do with school or work
  • Taking a walk 
  • Spending time in nature
  • Exercising
  • Playing with your pet
  • Listening to a calming or upbeat playlist
  • Dancing in your room
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture

Anything you can do to carve out time for you, do it. All these activities are safer than self-harm, and when you figure out a few that work for you they can become go-tos in difficult moments.

If you need help right now:

Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.

Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.

If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.