Self-harm involves intentionally hurting one’s own body. A person can try various alternatives to self-harm, such as spending time with friends or pets, listening to music, or learning harm minimization strategies.

Someone may self-harm as a reaction to overwhelming emotions or due to an underlying mental health condition.

This article explores different types of self-harm alternatives a person can try and when to speak with a healthcare professional.

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People typically start engaging in self-harm when they are teenagers or young adults. They may begin harming themselves for several reasons, such as in response to traumatic events or certain mental health conditions.

There are many strategies a healthcare professional may recommend to help individuals stop self-harming or reduce the risk of self-harm. Some of these methods may include exercising, spending time with loved ones, or trying relaxation techniques.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Individuals who engage in self-harm may find relief through physical activity. A person may try activities such as walking, riding a bike, or going for a brisk jog.

Some research suggests that physical activity may help improve a person’s mental health and reduce behavior that leads to self-injury.

Additionally, a 2022 review of studies indicated that participating in team sports may help reduce the risk of self-harm by helping enhance a person’s self-esteem and improving their responses to stressful situations. However, the authors highlighted that research into the topic is limited. Someone may consider joining a school sports team or a community sports league to help reduce the urge to self-harm.

Research from 2021 suggests that spending time with a pet can positively affect someone’s mental health, including reducing urges to self-harm. Pets may help reduce anxiety, panic attacks, and feelings of isolation. Caring for a pet may also increase a person’s sense of purpose.

Spending time with a pet may involve taking the family dog to the park for a walk or playing with an indoor cat. If a person does not have a pet, they may be able to spend time with a friend or family member’s pet instead.

Research from 2017 suggests that, among adolescents, feeling socially isolated has links to self-harm and suicidal ideation. Making time to see family or friends may enhance a person’s feelings of connectedness and social engagement.

Activities, such as going for a picnic, seeing a movie, or having coffee with a few close friends, may relieve urges to self-harm. If the thought of going out feels overwhelming, an individual may consider spending time with a friend or two at home.

Spending time outdoors may improve someone’s overall health. A 2022 review of research suggests that spending time in nature may help with immune system function, reduce the risk of diabetes, and lower blood pressure. It may also help prevent and treat depression, although further research is necessary.

These benefits of exploring nature may also help people dealing with self-harm impulses. A person may wish to try activities such as:

  • hiking
  • gardening
  • birdwatching
  • camping

Studies have found that individuals with mental health conditions experience improvements in their mental health after listening to or playing music.

If an impulse to self-harm occurs, someone could try listening to a favorite album, playing an instrument, or attending a local music show instead.

Mindfulness techniques can potentially increase a person’s self-awareness and coping skills. Individuals who experience self-harm may find practicing mindfulness an effective alternative to prevent injury.

Techniques, such as meditation or guided visualization exercises, may help reduce stress. Other mindfulness techniques may include body scans and breathing exercises.

Some people who experience self-harm may find relief from harm minimization strategies, which reduce the risk of injury. These may include snapping rubber bands on the wrist or using red pens to draw on the skin. Individuals may also benefit from squeezing ice cubes as an alternative to self-harm.

People can speak with a healthcare professional about how to use harm minimization strategies safely.

Self-harm often occurs as a result of overwhelming emotions, trauma, or an underlying mental health condition. Attending therapy sessions with a mental health professional may help an individual address why they self-harm. Over time, this may reduce or eliminate instances of self-injury.

Types of therapy for people who self-harm may include:

A person needs to speak with a healthcare professional to learn more about which type of therapy may be most effective on an individual basis.

Individuals engaging in self-harm can consult a doctor to learn about treatment options. Although self-harm can look different for everyone, some common examples include:

  • cutting skin with a knife or other sharp object
  • burning skin with candles, cigarettes, or other items
  • punching or hitting the self, walls, or other objects

Self-harm may lead to serious injuries. It may even indicate that an individual is at risk of suicide.

In severe cases of self-harm, a person needs to visit the emergency room or call 911 as soon as possible. In cases of suicidal ideation, it is crucial to receive care immediately.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a 24-hour confidential service for people experiencing thoughts of suicide. A person can call 988 at any time for support if they are having suicidal thoughts. This lifeline is also available to help people whose loved ones may be at risk of suicide.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also offers a free tool for locating mental health services.

A person may engage in self-harm due to a traumatic event, overwhelming emotions, or an underlying mental health issue.

For individuals experiencing self-harm, there are a number of activities that may serve as an alternative to prevent injury. Exercising, spending time in nature, or practicing mindfulness are a few examples of self-harm alternatives.

Because each experience of self-harm is highly personal, the most effective alternatives may vary between individuals. People need to speak with a healthcare professional to learn more about which alternatives may work best for them.

A person needs to call 911 immediately if they think someone is at risk of suicide or serious injury from self-harm.