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Break the Cycle: 4 Alternatives to Self-Harm

Category: Mental Health
9 minute read.

The urge to engage in self-harm or self-harming behaviors is not uncommon. Unfortunately, using self-harm as a way to reduce the pain and discomfort associated with various mental health conditions is common among teens and young adults. Although self-harm does not harm or injure others (at least not directly), it is essential to note that this method of alleviating mental health challenges is dangerous and can lead to harmful, sometimes fatal, outcomes.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm or self-injury is described as engaging in activities to hurt yourself on purpose. Typical forms of self-harm include cutting and burning, but these are not the only ways people self-harm. In general, any time someone intentionally causes injury to themselves, it is considered self-harm. Extreme forms of self-harm can lead to broken bones, permanent scarring, and internal injuries.

Engaging in self-harming behavior or thinking of ways to cause harm to your body indicates emotional turmoil. Unfortunately, using self-harm as a coping mechanism only provides short-term relief in most cases, and ongoing use of self-harm only leads to intensifying emotions in the long term. Seeking help at a treatment center like The Los Angeles Outpatient Center is an important first step towards uncovering the root causes of your feelings and learning safer, healthier ways to manage mental health symptoms.

Why People Self-Harm

Self-harm itself is not a mental illness or mental health diagnosis. However, when someone engages in self-harm, it is essential to seek help to address the underlying condition that encourages the behaviors. Many mental health diagnoses are frequently associated with self-harm, such as depression, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Self-harming behaviors as a coping mechanism occur most frequently in teens and young adults, although adults engage in this behavior as well. Those who have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse are believed to be at the most significant risk for using self-harm to cope. Also, if someone uses drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, they are often at an increased risk for more significant injury linked to self-harm because alcohol and drugs dull perceptions and reduce self-control abilities.

Self-harming behaviors or the urge to self-harm frequently arise from overwhelming emotions like pain, anger, or frustration. When someone who experiences these emotions is unable to manage them in another way, they may turn to self-harm as a way to cope. In fact, the pain experienced from the behavior may feel like a “release” as it distracts from the deep emotional pain they feel each day. Sometimes, self-inflicted pain prompts the body to release endorphins which are hormones in the body responsible for pain suppression. This can lead to improved mood. Others may choose self-harm in an effort to “feel something” when their mental state leads to feelings of emotional numbness.

Self-harm is not the same as attempting suicide. However, the cycle of repeated self-harm can be equally as dangerous. If someone is hurting or struggling emotionally to the point where they turn to behaviors that cause self-injury, they may be at an increased risk of feeling suicidal or, at the very least, in danger of causing irreversible physical harm to themselves. It is vital to find help at a treatment center like The Los Angeles Outpatient Center to address the underlying emotions leading to the urge to self-harm.

Types of Self-Injury

As previously mentioned, cutting and burning are two common forms of self-harm; however, there are other examples of self-injurious behaviors such as scratching, carving words or symbols into the skin, pinching, hitting, head banging, piercing the skin, inserting objects under the skin, and others.

Signs of self-harm are most often visible on the arms, legs, and front of the torso (chest and stomach); however, these are not the only locations on the body. Also, someone who uses self-harm to manage pain or emotional difficulties may use more than one method. Because the signs and symptoms of one method may be more apparent than another, it can be challenging to know if someone is self-harming.

Alternatives to Self-Harm

Even when one knows self-harming behaviors are not the most beneficial coping technique, it can be hard to think of an alternative when faced with a moment of pain or distress. Unfortunately, in these cases, self-harm is the “one” thing they know helps, even for a short time. Changing behavior requires having an alternative readily available. Below are four evidence-based things you can try in place of self-harm when faced with a triggering moment.

Create a healthy distraction

Take a moment to get outside or get to a different location. Changing your surroundings can provide you with enough time away from your immediate emotions and  “self-harm tools” for the urge to harm to pass. Also, spending time outside in nature can produce a calming effect that may reduce painful emotions. Remember that it is ok to start small and work your way towards larger endeavors outside of your comfort zone.

Engaging in physical activity is also helpful for improving mood. It can also reduce the intensity of your emotions and, therefore, the urge to self-harm. Current research indicates those who use engage in self-harm report success using exercise to reduce their urges. People often believe that “exercise” to achieve your goals must be vigorous or intense, but this is not the case. Simple, low-key activities like yoga, stretching, walking, or biking can be highly effective.

Talk to a friend

Being around others can provide a vital distraction in moments where you feel the urge to self-harm. Also, the emotional support received from others in a time of need can have significant benefits. Although opening up to another, even a friend or loved one, is not easy, it can greatly help elevate your emotional state of mind. If your current living situation inhibits you from being face-to-face with a close, trusted friend, consider virtual options such as Zoom, FaceTime, or even a simple phone call.

While video chats and similar software will likely feel different from an in-person conversation, it can have a couple of benefits as well. Again, opening up to someone about the urge to self-harm can be difficult. In some cases, the difficulty of being open about complex, painful emotions is heightened by face-to-face interaction. In these situations, the distance provided by virtual communication may increase your comfort levels and allow you to be more open and honest about your needs.

Try guided meditation

Meditation is a popular self-care technique used by millions to manage painful or distressing thoughts and emotions. Guided imagery is a form of meditation practice that may help reduce painful thoughts and self-injurious behaviors. Guided imagery is a “visual approach” to relaxation that enables you to create a personal happy place. By using your imagination to create a pleasant scene or environment in your mind, you are less focused on the immediate, unpleasant emotions that could be triggering. By further adding specific details to your mental image, you can release stress and promote feelings of peace and relaxation.

If you are unfamiliar with guided imagery or would like to try it, videos online can walk you through the process. A quick Google search will provide several guided imagery sessions of varying lengths you can use to help manage stressors and challenges. Remember, everyone is different, and guided imagery and mediation practices are not meant for everyone. Some people experience challenges achieving relaxation through meditation, leading to further stress. Many mental health treatment programs incorporate self-care education and practice into treatment programs. This allows you to learn more about these self-care tools to see if they can be beneficial for you.

Tap into your creative side

If you are feeling emotionally low, putting your emotions into words or accurately conveying how you feel can seem impossible. Where words fail, art or music can help you express your feelings and reduce the urge to self-harm. Artistic or creative endeavors can also offer self-care benefits that other coping tools may not. For example, creating a painting or working with clay allows you to choose what you want to express along with when and how you want to do so. It also lets you use your hands in a physical way which can keep you occupied and focused on something other than self-harming activities. Also, once your art is complete, you have a record of your feelings. It is your choice what to do with it.

If you have a friend or loved one who self-harms or if you are injuring yourself, there is enough reason to reach out for help. Any form of self-harm, no matter how minor, is an indicator of a more profound concern that will benefit from support at a treatment center like The Los Angeles Outpatient Center. If you are not ready to contact a treatment center on your own, talk to someone you trust. Disclosing your worries and emotions to a friend, loved one, doctor, nurse, teacher, or spiritual advisor can reduce the weight of your emotions. Also, your trusted confidant can support and assist you in taking the first steps on your journey to successful recovery.

The first step towards lasting health and wellness is to seek help in overcoming the underlying medical or mental health conditions that lead to difficult emotions and self-harm. At The Los Angeles Outpatient Center, we understand this can be the most challenging step of all. Let our team of skilled providers help you find freedom from the problematic symptoms that can lead to self-harm and self-injuring behaviors. Our admissions team is here to teach you more about our programs and the care you can receive through therapy at our Los Angeles treatment center. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.