Top 13 Alternatives to Self-Harming Behavior That Actually Work

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | September 7, 2017

self harm treatment in Atlanta

It is not uncommon for people experiencing intense emotional pain to turn their anger and frustration against themselves. You may know someone who turns to self-harm, or you may engage in self-harming behaviors. It is recommended you engage a mental health professional to help with self-harming behaviors.

There are many reasons individuals may turn to self-harm as a coping mechanism. These behaviors are a health risk and can lead to infections and scars. While not all self-harming behaviors are suicide attempts, it is one of the risk predictors for a completed suicide. Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI) is more common in adolescent populations than previously thought, and it is important to assess the associated risk of suicidal behavior.

People who choose to self-harm likely understand that the act isn’t an effective long-term coping method for their emotions, but they lack the skills to effectively cope with unwanted feelings. If you or someone you know needs help finding new coping methods, check out this list of alternatives for self-harming to get started.

In This Article

Are You Currently Experiencing a Crisis?

If you are currently experiencing a crisis and are looking for immediate help, please contact the following resources.

It can also be beneficial to engage a professional mental health provider for further support and treatment — even if your crisis is not immediately life-threatening.

Effective Methods to Cope With Self-Harm

There are two aspects of self-harming behavior — the physical practice (the action) and the mental process (the urge to act). The physical habit is likely easier to change than the underlying mental process. The best way to change a pattern is to replace it with a different one. You can do several things when you feel the urge to hurt yourself that would be less harmful and allow you to release the tension you feel.

The key is to discover a safer habit that works for you and retrain your brain to do it instead of self-harming. Try these instead:

1. Exercise

Moving your body with physical activity is an effective way to release stress and distract yourself from negativity. Try exercises like yoga, walking, swimming, dancing or any activity you enjoy to get your body moving.

Working out may be the last thing on your mind in the moment, but reflect on how you feel after you get up and move. Remind yourself that exercise is worth the extra effort after you complete your activity.

Any form of exercise burns energy, positive or negative. You can take your negative energy and use it to build a healthier lifestyle.

2. Cooking or Baking

Cooking is a popular hobby, and recipes and cooking shows are everywhere. If you like food or you like to cook, consider using this to distract yourself and engage in an enjoyable activity instead of self-harming. Making food for yourself to extend self-compassion and nourish your body or making food for others to contribute to those around you can be a powerful way to cope with unwanted feelings instead.

3. Being Creative

Creativity and art is an excellent way to express emotions that you are struggling to put into words. Art can also provide a sense of control and allow you to use your hands and release stress physically. Art can guide you to a state of flow, which helps intense feelings fade as you focus your energy on your art or creative project.

Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, picking up a pen and paper and scribbling is a great place to start when looking for alternatives to self-harm.

4. Calling a Friend

Receiving emotional support from a friend or family member you trust is an essential part of recovering from self-harm. Opening up to someone about your feelings gets easier as you continue to talk to someone you trust. Take time out of your day to call someone when you need a substitute for self-harm.

5. Listening to Music

Music is a healthy way to channel your feelings into various types of songs. Focusing on the song’s rhythm and lyrics can be an excellent distraction from intense feelings. The lyrics can also help you process your emotions and release tension by dancing or singing along to the song. Be mindful of the type of music you choose because music can also exacerbate the current feeling.

Reading a Book

6. Reading a Book

Try reading a book if you want to dive into a story and refocus your mind on an engaging activity. Books can transport you to another time and place, and help distract your mind. You can fully immerse yourself in a great story and stay busy for hours.

7. Watching a Movie

Like reading a book, a movie can help you focus on a storyline to distract yourself from your own thoughts and emotions. Invite a friend out to a movie theater or snuggle up on your couch to watch your favorite film.

8. Hanging Out With a Pet

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take some time to hang out with your pet. Your pet can help distract you and put a smile on your face.

9. Having a Self-Care Day

Take some time just for yourself when you need some self-care. Soak in a warm bath, put on a face mask, enjoy your favorite meal or make time for your favorite activity.

10. Cleaning

Getting into the zone when you’re cleaning is a great way to distract yourself from unwanted feelings. Start by cleaning one section of your house and continue for as long as you’d like. Turn on some music or your favorite podcast, and you’re ready to go. It’s always nice to see the progress and feel accomplished when you’re done.

11. Going Outside

Spending time in nature can give you a change in environment and promote a calming effect. It also gets you away from your self-harming tools and gives the urge time to pass. You don’t have to schedule full outings — just do something simple. This can include walking through your neighborhood, stopping by your favorite coffee shop or lying in the sunshine.

If going outside feels like too much, try opening a window and sitting next to it. The fresh air on your face can give you a boost you didn’t know you needed.

12. Writing or Journaling

Writing or journaling can provide a safer outlet for your feelings. If you are angry, write out everything you would say to the person or object that upset you, then rip up the page. For sadness, journaling your thoughts is a productive way not to let the feelings fester in you. If you are feeling guilty, try listing as many good things about yourself as possible.

Simple exercises like this can get your thoughts on a page and allow you to see the situation and your emotions more clearly.

13. Practicing Self-Guided Imagery

Self-guided imagery is often confused with meditation, but these practices are slightly different. Meditation can intensify certain thoughts, including the feeling of harming yourself. Self-guided imagery is a visual approach that helps you focus on a happy, calming place in your mind. Throughout a self-guided imagery session, you can add vivid sensory details to the image and practice releasing stress, taking your mind off of a self-harming urge and promoting peace.

No matter which method works for you, distracting your mind from the unwanted feelings and urge to self-harm will help reduce your self-harming behaviors.

Self-Harm Minimization Strategies

If you feel the strategies above are not helping immediately, you can try out self-harm minimization methods. These tactics don’t necessarily reduce the urge to self-harm but can soften the extremity of it.

Minimization strategies can help some people as short-term solutions, but other approaches — like the ones above — may be more effective. 

1. Take a Cold Shower

When you feel the urge to harm yourself, try getting in the shower and turning the water temperature to as cold as you can stand. This can help shock your system and reduce negative thinking. It can also provide a temporary numbing sensation on the areas you feel like harming.

2. Snap Rubber Bands

Keeping a rubber band around your wrist is an alternative to cutting. Any time you get the urge, snap the rubber band on your wrist. This can give you a brief pain sensation without you reaching for your self-harming tools.

3. Eat Something With a Strong Flavor

Eating sour or spicy candy or foods can distract you from your emotions. Your senses will immediately wake up to what you are eating. You can try focusing on every aspect of the flavor to adjust your focal point. 

4. Beat Up a Pillow

To control your anger, you can take it out on one of your throw pillows. Punching it, screaming into it and using it to hit a wall are all ways you can express your frustrations or restlessness.

5. Draw on Your Skin

Doodling on your skin — specifically on the area you usually harm — can relieve emotions and restlessness. Use a red felt-tip marker to draw lines or pictures and distract yourself from using a sharper object.

Outpatient and Residential Treatment Centers for Self-Harm in Georgia

Replacing self-harming behavior with something safe is just the beginning. It is important to address the underlying thought pattern that drives you to want to harm yourself. At Hillside, we are here to provide support, hope and healing to those struggling with self-harm.

Hillside provides a variety of behavioral treatment options in Georgia. Our residential treatment and Experience DBT Day Program provide intensive levels of mental health support at our campus in Atlanta. Our intensive outpatient services include in-person options in Savannah and Macon. Hillside’s intensive virtual treatment options serve teens who engage in self-harming behaviors throughout Georgia and Florida.


  • Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

    Director of Clinical Education & Outreach - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

    View all posts
Current Version
Posted in