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Coping skills for self-harming behaviors


Self-harming behaviors can appear in many different ways. There are the physical kinds like cutting, burning, pulling hair, picking at wounds, and alcohol or drug misuse. There are also psychological forms like digital self-harm, also known as self-cyberbullying. This occurs when people (typically adolescents) post hateful remarks about themselves on social media and other platforms anonymously. Sometimes there can even be a combination where someone harms themselves physically and posts photos of their injuries online.  

Causes of self-harming behaviors

Usually beginning in the teenage or young adult years, people typically harm themselves as a way to cope with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, abuse, trauma, substance use disorder, or other adverse mental health conditions.   The intense emotions resulting from these conditions can cause people to take their pain out on themselves, helping them to cope or experience some sense of release. This can then result in a disturbing cycle, as the self-harming behavior can trigger the release of pain-killing hormones, leading to a temporary rush of euphoria, followed by feelings of guilt and shame, and a continuation of the cycle.  If left untreated, these behaviors can lead to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.1

Finding the cause of self-harming behaviors is the first step in treating them. Once you understand why, you can begin to substitute more constructive behaviors for self-harming ones. Journaling is one way of helping you find the root causes. As described in the book “Freedom from Self-Harm,” writing down your urges, without judgment, allows you to explore them more deeply. Try to name any feelings that emerge. If you’re struggling to open up, ask yourself simple, straightforward questions, such as “Why do I like to harm myself?”  

How to cope with self-harming behaviors

Developing skills to help you cope with your self-harming behaviors is a must. While there are many ways of coping, the key is to find the positive outlets that are most helpful to you. Here are a few you can try when you feel those destructive energies coming on. 

Express yourself – Whether you’re sad, angry, or stressed, some methods to release the emotions include:

  • Crying
  • Yelling or screaming
  • Jumping up and down 
  • Walking, dancing, jogging, swimming, running, or other physical activities
  • Breaking or tearing harmless objects (sticks, pictures of yourself, paper, cardboard, etc.)
  • Taking a warm bubble bath
  • Listening to calming music
  • Talking to a trusted friend
  • Drawing the areas you want to harm.

Do something positive – Focus on something else to help you feel better, especially those types of activities that can release endorphins, serotonin, and other brain chemicals linked to feelings of pleasure. Some examples include:

  • Exercising
  • Coloring
  • Drawing
  • Cleaning your house
  • Decluttering by throwing things out and/or reorganizing your living space
  • Hugging a pet, a pillow, or a stuffed animal

Getaway – Often, people who engage in self-harming behaviors do so in certain places or at certain times. One way to interrupt this behavior pattern is to go elsewhere and do another activity. Here are some ideas:

  • Go for a walk – Even a five-minute jaunt in the fresh air can calm you and clear your mind.
  • Meet with a friend for a meal
  • Hit the gym
  • Bask at the beach – Watching and listening to the rhythm of the waves to feel more at peace.
  • Head to a park – Sitting in nature while you take in your surroundings may change your perspective.

Sensory interruption – If you still are feeling the urge to physically self-harm, try these tips that involve your sense of touch:²

  • Marking where you might usually harm yourself with a felt-tip pen, paint, or food coloring
  • Rubbing ice on the area where you might usually harm yourself
  • Take a cold shower
  • Placing elastic bands on wrists, arms, or legs and flick them instead of cutting or hitting
  • Decorating the skin where you might harm yourself  with henna or other temporary tattoos

Finding the cause of self-harming behaviors and overcoming them takes work. Once you’ve developed a habit of redirecting your behavior, however, you may find relief from your self-harming urges. While we’ve given you some tips for addressing these behaviors on your own, mental health counseling or group therapy is often useful when you find it difficult to cope on your own and need support. We can help with in-person counseling or tele-mental health services. Contact us today. For more immediate assistance, call our 24-hour Crisis Hotline: (518) 483-3261 or (518) 891-5535.