Self-harming is a form of maladaptive coping in response to challenging emotions. Self-harm may be triggered by suicidal thoughts, or it may be in response to emotional pain, or to feeling invalidated. Self-harm is often (although not always) separate from a suicide attempt. Sometimes self-harm is used as an attempt to “stop the pain” the individual is experiencing.
What is the remedy for self-harm? Although there is not always a “quick fix,” as with any negative coping habit, or addictive behavior, a replacement is needed. That replacement can come in the form of learning positive and healthier coping skills.
In order to demonstrate healthier coping habits, an individual must learn to handle stressors more effectively, and to regulate the emotions they are experiencing. Self-harming behaviors are often more prevalent in adolescence due to their lack of ability to regulate their emotions effectively. Teens are often overwhelmed by their feelings, and do not always know how to cope. Also, due to this heightened emotional sensitivity, teens often feel invalidated by their peers and support networks, increasing their risk for self-injury.
Some of the coping skills that can be used to replace self-harming behaviors include:
1. Exercise- engaging in physical activity that gets adrenaline pumping, and helps to boost endorphins and regulate strong emotions.
2.Replacement behaviors- these are behaviors that may serve a similar function to the self-injury. Replacement behaviors may include, wearing and snapping a rubber band on the wrist, drawing with a pen or marker on the arm, holding ice and letting it melt in your hand.
3. Alternate Coping Behaviors- engaging in a creative activity, preferably something that keeps your hands busy (ie, drawing, painting, knitting, clay, writing in a journal, etc).
4. Emotional Outlets- call a friend, a hotline, talk to a family member. Remember that emotions are at the root of any self-injurious urges, learning to “surf the urge” will help you make healthier coping choices.
5. Care for the Body and the Mind- do a relaxation, deep breathing, guided imagery, or mindfulness activity. Allow for presence of mind and grounding yourself in reality. Notice sensations around you. This will help to calm the mind and heightened emotion that is underlying the urge to self-injure.
Remember that each coping skill can be used on its own, or in combination with other strategies. If one strategy is not working effectively (ie, by stopping the urge to self-injure), then attempt an alternate strategy. Keep trying different interventions until you find one that works. The key is to practice these skills often, whenever the urge for self-harm arises, and you will be able to form healthier coping habits.