How to prevent or help prevent self harm

Last week was the national suicide prevention week in the United States. I may be a week late commenting on the matter, but missing it is no reason to withhold vital information that could help save lives and many from pain. Over a long period of time, I’ve observed my surroundings and come across many people who have had experience with mental health challenges. Some of those experiences were much more intense, leading them to believe they had an anxiety disorder, or depression. In its most destructive manifestations, many even resort to hurting themselves out of self-hate, anxiety, helplessness, or other reasons.

In this post, I won’t discuss suicide directly, but what is often a precursor to it, or what may be called a sign that someone may be contemplating ending their life. Even if the latter is not true, it is still pain that no human deserves to go through. It’s not your job to help everyone you come across, but if you decide to help people, there are some things you need to keep in mind. If you’re someone struggling with the issue yourself, you can still continue reading and find a list of strategies you can use to develop healthier coping mechanism and ultimately a healthier mental state.

Table of contents

Understanding self-harm

There can be different thought processes that can lead to self harm. While all of them remain unhealthy convictions, understanding the issues at hand is the first step before knowing what to do about it and how. Self-harmers frequently describe their motivations as follows:

  • Giving a similar relieving feeling as drugs or smoking does,
  • An outlet that forms a temporary escape,
  • To metaphorically feel that one’s problems are flowing out with the pain,
  • While the challenges of life lie outside one’s control (allegedly), self harming gives a sense of control,
  • It is a method of manifesting one’s self hate, and others.

All of these reasons, and more, help us understand why someone may end up adopting this habit. Of course, this is by no means defending or justifying it, but explaining it so we may appropriately take the next steps.

Do you really want temporary relief?

To go after drugs, smoking, or self harm as a temporary relief from whatever is challenging you creates a cycle of addiction. It will not solve anything, nor make you stronger to deal with it, nor be helpful in any way in the long run. If anything, it may make it much more difficult to deal with the problems at hand.

This is not to say that you are always supposed to deal with your issues head-on, you may find outlets of distraction, but these will cause more harm than good. Consider learning how to journal, express your thoughts by words through prose or poetry, talking to a friend or a professional, and other possibilities.

Many of the reasons behind self harming are about creating an illusion of things being fine. Whether it’s attaching a metaphor to it, or doing it to feel control, or distracting oneself, it has the potential to create a cycle of addiction, shame, and reinforcement of the issue at hand instead of pulling you out of the issue.

Venting frustrations

In some cases, self harm may be used to let out frustrations and complex feelings that have been otherwise difficult to put into words. Or, it may be a manifestation of one’s hate towards themselves; a form of punishment.

In this case as well, it is important to reflect and ask oneself questions. Journaling, meditation, or reaching out can help understand the inescapable worthiness of love, care, compassion, and gentleness, unless you’ve committed crimes worthy of life-long prison, even in which case I would pray for rehabilitation not unending punishments.

A list of phrases to replace for better self-talk

You can curb self hate by stopping yourself every time you notice that you’re being rude to yourself. It can help trying to reflect on the origin of those thoughts and replace them with more realistic and compassionate ones. Some examples are listed below.

Old: That was so stupid of me.
New: That was so human of me.

Old: Why is this happening to me?
New: What is this experience teaching me?

Old: I hope they like me
New: I hope I like them. Liking someone is more about compatibility than inherent worth.

Old: I wish I had their life
New: What have I been taking for granted recently?

Old: I don’t look good today
New: People’s perceptions of beauty are subjective. Not everyone is pretty to everyone, nor is everyone ugly to everyone. I’m just not my own type today, but others may still find me looking good.

What is something I love about myself that isn’t about my appearance? What value do I bring to the world beyond just my appearance?

Old: My love life sucks
New: My past relationships haven’t been ideal. Moving forward, I will apply the lessons I’ve learned to allow the right person into my life.

Old: I keep messing things up
New: My past mistakes are my greatest teachers. What do I keep doing that keeps hurting? What accountability do I need to take? How can I be kinder towards myself when I make a mistake?

Old: If I admit I’m wrong, I’ll seem weak
New: Evolving my point of view when presented with new information is a sign of strength

Old: I’m not enough
New: I am worthy of all the things I want. Even the things that feel out of reach.

Source: @werenotreallystrangers on Instagram.

Finally, before you say something to yourself, imagine that a friend of yours was also in a similar situation. Would you also respond to them the same way you are responding to yourself?

A list of alternatives to self harm

  1. Acknowledge that it’s a temporary urge, will not yield good, and will pass.
  2. Vent what you are feeling either by maintaining a diary, or typing, or to a friend, family member, or a professional.
  3. Try not to self-diagnose yourself with mental health issues as it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  4. Set an immediate task for yourself, for example, drink a cold glass of water, take a bath, complete a chore, take deep breaths for a minute or two, eat something, go outside, wash your face, meditate for 1-5 minutes, play with a pet, talk to someone, etc.
  5. Scribbling
  6. Draw, paint, crafts.
  7. Pillow fight with the wall
  8. Pop bubble wrap or do something satisfying or watch satisfying videos
  9. Write down your thoughts and tear, burn, or discard them and give that a metaphorical sense of them going away
  10. Play a game, maybe a calm one on your mobile
  11. Use an app that can help you navigate through the moment such as ‘Calm’
  12. Procrastinate the self harming
  13. Count backward from 200 but skip 3 numbers
  14. Go outside
  15. Call a local helpline for mental health emergencies

Sensational alternatives to self harm

  1. Eat ice and focus on the cold and how it melts and how the water from melted ice tastes
  2. Hold ice cubes in your hand
  3. Arm wrestle with someone
  4. Eat something really spicy or really sweet
  5. Put tiger balm on the place(s) you want to harm so that your focus goes on the tingly sensation from it instead
  6. Drink tea but slowly and focus on every sip

Also consider checking out these Instagram accounts for more information on the subject: @lighthousearabia, @huesofthemind, and @mind.champs.

Want to help others prevent harming themselves?

Step one, avoid judgment.

Understanding the stigma of ‘weakness’ around self harm

By no means is self harming a healthy coping mechanism. By no means is it something that should be defended or promoted. Yet, shaming people who have engaged in the act is not helpful to help them get out of it.

Sure, you may think that if you were to indulge in it, it may define you as weak. Perhaps your philosophy of life is to deal with problems in a more straightforward manner. Perhaps you have deeply embedded the idea of taking ownership and fixing your issues right away without mental health struggles in the same manner as others.

Yet, these thoughts apply to your strategy of holding yourself back from it but would do more harm than good if projected to those facing difficulties. These insensitive remarks can push people into a quiet whole where they refuse to seek help as they fear judgment and more pain.

The goal is to help such people abandon these destructive coping mechanisms and adopt new ones, but it should not involve shaming, but establishing an environment that makes them comfortable in reaching out for help.

Dealing with self harm’s connection with attention seeking

The second prominent belief surrounding those who engage in self harm is that they are attention seekers. This may be true or not, depending on how they talk about it and other factors. However, in some cases, it will not be easy to label this. Plus, maybe it’s a good idea to not think of labeling at all. If the person wasn’t just seeking attention, you’d be making the previous mistake.

Even if they were, it is still a little more complicated. Questions such as, “does it mean they are not facing any issues?”, “why do they need this attention?”, “why do they not reach out for professional help?” and others still linger. Decide your steps carefully, or don’t take any steps at all.

Some specific ways in which you can help

Ask questions

It is crucial to be a listener first. After that, you can choose to help them navigate through their thoughts by asking questions that will make them make sense of things. You don’t have to comment on their experiences and send your own life stories or write something large – these things are not inevitable for assistance.

For example, you can choose to help someone hating themselves for mistakes they’ve made by asking certain questions that will help them reflect, such as the following:

  • Why do you think this is important in the long run?
  • Are you overgeneralizing? Are you coming to a conclusion based more on a hasty opinion or a singular experience than facts?
  • Are you assuming others have specific beliefs or feel a certain way? Are you guessing how they’ll react out of anxiousness and hasty thought?
  • Is this an all-or-nothing thought? Are you viewing one incident as either good or bad without considering that the reality is rarely black or white?
  • Would you say the same to me if I had done the same thing? Why not?

Be a listener

Sometimes, a friend may feel better by just having a source they can vent their thoughts to without receiving advice in return. You can be there for your friends by asking them if they just need someone to use as a human diary. You don’t have to provide advice, just listening will help them see things better and feel lighter. It can help to ask them explicitly whether they want just a listener or concrete responses and advice.

Don’t force information, conversation, or change

While we both know what the best outcome is, it cannot be forced. You can encourage them to move towards improving their coping mechanisms, but you can’t force it. It may cause more irritation and reluctance to reach out because of the discomfort caused by attempted force or excitement.

You are also not entitled to information about their habits if they tell you a little or you find out somehow. Helping people involves not causing them discomfort, and your curiosity about seeing marks or knowing about the methods may create that discomfort.

Sometimes, you may just be offering an ear or asking questions that are meant to help and not fulfill mere curiosity, but even then, not everyone will be willing to converse and open up. Again, you can encourage but not force it as forcing may do more harm than good.

Focus on larger issues and not just the self harm

Remember that self harm is the result of other things, as discussed earlier. When helping someone with self harm, just trying to prevent it is not enough. It may be more fruitful to identify the reasons because of which one is harming themself. Trying to resolve those reasons is a better and more sustainable way of dealing with the problem.

Sometimes, those reasons can be too complex to resolve in too little amount of time. In that case, you can address a middle-ground. There are two parts to emotional distress or mental health challenges, just like any other illness – the disease itself, and its symptoms. If controlling the disease is out of your reach, you can help alleviate the symptoms. In this case, by helping them identify other outlets for their emotions, i.e., referring them to self harm alternatives to building healthier coping mechanisms.

I hope this post helps you find better coping mechanisms, if you are someone struggling with this issue. If you know someone who is, I hope you find the strength and ability to help them out with this, or refer them to somewhere they can receive it.

If you have any other ideas that can help people, let me know in the comments so other readers can benefit from that knowledge too.


I am not a mental health professional. Although my content is made with some research and thought, it is advised that you prioritize consulting a professional for support if you are feeling helpless, fearing, or are resorting to destructive coping mechanisms.


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