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Alternatives and Coping Methods
When you're faced with any kind of negative urge, whether self harm, an addiction or something else, alternatives are ways that can help you to get past those negative emotions. Some of these can help you immediately, by stopping you in the moment, while others can help you over a longer term to change your thinking and help you to move forward.
Below are a number of different ways to help you when facing these negative urges. Please keep in mind that not everything on this list will work for everyone, so, if you try something and it doesn't work for you, don't get discouraged! Some of these choices are complicated, and you might want to utilize the help of a therapist or trusted friend when undertaking them. Recovery is not a process that can be walked through alone, so don't be afraid to reach out for help.
Distractions (Good if you're distressed or tempted right now)
Dealing with and expressing your feelings (Good to reduce urges)
It can be hard to cope when something unhealthy is on your mind. Unhealthy behaviors can become frequent, or even obsessive. The list below has a few examples of ways to distract your mind.>
Play the 'fifteen minute game.' Choose an activity and engage in it for fifteen minutes. When the time is up, add another fifteen minutes and so forth. The goal is to get invested in an activity without realizing that your fifteen minutes are up.
Plan activities for yourself throughout the day. Keeping busy in your surroundings, whether that is volunteering or watching a movie can reduce negative thoughts.
Work on a puzzle. Select a puzzle such as a jigsaw puzzle, a crossword or word search. Working on a puzzle can be both time consuming and calming.
Count to fifty or one thousand. Counting can interrupt your thoughts, thus making it difficult to focus on counting and unhealthy behaviors at the same time.
Read or watch a movie or TV show. This can level out your mind; it gives you the chance to get invested in the lives of characters.
Look through old photo albums. This activity can bring back positive memories. If your past is triggering, however, you may want to avoid this alternative.
Bottled up emotions can contribute to unhealthy behaviors. Here are a few healthy ways to express your feelings.
Talk to someone. Talking to someone is sometimes easier said than done, but if you feel comfortable talking to someone about what you are experiencing, give it a try. If you cannot talk to someone or you do not want to talk to someone in your life, consider calling a hotline.
Journal about your feelings. Journaling, whether it is in a notebook or a blog, can make a world of difference. Journaling can give you a safe place to talk about what you want whenever you're ready. It can also be a way to measure your progress as you can look back at past entries if it is helpful.
Express yourself in an artistic way. Consider drawing, painting, sculpting, writing, or singing. Each of these examples could serve as a valuable outlet.
Trace your hand on a piece of paper. On your thumb, write something you like to look at; on your index finger, write something you like to touch; on your middle finger, write your favorite scent; on your ring finger, write something you like the taste of; on your pinky finger, write something you like to listen to; on your palm, write something you like about yourself
Identify what is hurting so bad that you need to express it in this way
Start a grateful journal where everyday you write down three: good things that happened/things that you accomplished/are grateful for/made you smile. Make sure the journal is strictly for positive things. Then when you feel down you can go back and look at it.
Carry tokens to remind you of peaceful comforting things/people
Make a collage of how you feel
Free write (Write down whatever you're thinking at that moment, even if it doesn't make sense)
Make lists of everything such as blessings in your life
Write your feelings on paper then rip it up
Write words in the sand for them to be washed away
Make a notebook of song lyrics that you relate to
Hug a pillow, soft toy or a tree
With permission, give someone a hug
If you're religious, read the bible (or your own religious text) or pray
Accept where you are in the process. Beating yourself up, only makes it worse
Do breathing exercises. Inhale, and picture all the stress and anxiety leaving your body every time you exhale. You can also take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds before slowly releasing it. Additionally, you can practice mindfulness or yoga. Here's an article about mindfulness.
Make yourself feel safe and comfortable. You can go to a safe room, hold a safe object, or make your environment feel safer (e.g. turn on the lights or leave the TV running). Touch something familiar and surround yourself with pleasant objects
Tear up pictures or newspapers. Taking your aggression out on the paper can be therapeutic. You can also scribble over people in magazines.
Punch or scream into a pillow. Screaming on or punching a pillow is a safe way to reduce some of your anger.
Write an angry letter to someone. Use this as an opportunity to be as angry as you want. When you're done writing, set it aside and return to it when things cool down. Alternatively, you can choose a safe way to destroy it.
Fill a piece of paper by drawing cross hatches. You could also include drawings or words of things that make you angry. Draw cross hatches over these to erase the anger you feel by them.
Pop bubble wrap or balloons. Blow up balloons and find creative ways to pop them, or use bubble wrap instead.
Grounding techniques - Feeling present in the 'now'
Grounding techniques are alternatives that can help you feel more present in the moment. This can help to change your thinking away from the past or the future, which may cause you distress, to focusing on the now, which can be important for breaking the cycle of negative thinking. The list below has suggestions that encompass all of the senses.
Hold something to fidget with. Use a stress ball, a fidget toy, or putty. Stimulating the tactile sense can help you feel more grounded.
Shuffle your feet or stomp on the floor. This is another way to focus on the tactile sense.
Use a product containing menthol. Menthol products provide a cold and warm sensation when used on the body. They also smell minty, which targets the sense of smell and feel.
Bake or prepare a meal. The act of preparing a dish, cooking it, eating it, and smelling it while it is cooking can help you feel more present. You can find recipes here for Irish potato candy or rainbow pancakes to get you started.
Listen to music. Listening to music can distract you and keep you in the moment.
Talk to someone. Holding a conversation with someone requires you to actively listen and participate which makes it a useful grounding tool.
Suck on hard candy, chew gum, or eat something spicy. Foods that are spicy or minty can stimulate your taste buds.
Look at something shiny, sparkly, or colorful. You could look at holiday lights or a piece of tinfoil to target your sight.
Focus on your breathing. Breathe in and out slowly, feel your lungs expand as you breathe in and the breath rushing out again.
Do a “reality check list”. Write down all the things you can list about where you are now (e.g. It is the 9th November 2014, I’m in a room and everything is going to be all right)
Cognitive alternatives are those that help combat negative thinking you may be experiencing. Here are a few ways to target negative thinking.
Focus on positive thinking
Take note of positive things when you can. While it is important to work through the negatives, it is equally as important to acknowledge the positive things. A good way to practice this is to write about a positive aspect each day, put the paper into a jar or folder, and read about your experiences at the end of the calendar year.
List things you like about yourself. Write about your traits, whether they are physical attributes or assets related to your personality.
Decorate your space with positivity. Write down favorite quotes, draw calming pictures, or use things that make you feel happy to decorate your room or other space. For instance, you could put positive words around your mirror or another place you are frequently in.
Write positive messages on your skin. You can do this with pen, marker, or body paint. Allow these messages to serve as a healthy reminder of your worth.
Volunteer, or do something for someone else. Doing something for someone else can brighten their day and be a positive experience for both of you. It can also be useful to find out about other people's lives to put your own thoughts into a wider perspective.
Treat yourself the way you treat others. If your friend or a family member was struggling, what would you tell them? Relay those same messages to yourself.
Remembering past times and focusing on positive memories. Think about what was positive about this particular memory, for example list all the good things about it.
Change negative thinking
Re-frame your thoughts. When you have a negative thought, take note of it and then find a way to change it into a positive one. For instance, a thought such as "I don't like my depression" can be changed into "My depression is only one part of me and it is not going to be permanent."
Talk back to your negative thoughts. Write down the thoughts you are having, and then write down positive statements that combat and disprove the negative thoughts.
Acknowledge that the unhealthy behavior you'd like to engage in is harmful. For example, instead of saying "I want to (insert behavior)" say "I want to hurt myself."
Note black and white thinking. Black and white thinking is known as "all or nothing thinking." When you notice yourself thinking that way, make a "gray" statement instead.
Change your scene. If you're focusing too much on negative thoughts, a change of scene can help to change your thinking. This could be leaving your current room, changing your clothes or doing your hair differently that day.
Use word associations. Pair each negative thought with a positive alternative and remember this. Whenever you think of the negative word or urge focus instead on the positive word you paired with it.
Create a safe place to go to and use it when needed. Pay attention to the changes needed to make you feel safe. Here is an article about creating a safe place
Repeat to yourself “I don’t deserve to be hurt” even if you don’t believe it
Kiss the places you want to self harm or kiss the places you have healing wounds. It can be a reminder that you care about yourself and that you don't want this
Remember that you always have the choice not to harm yourself: it’s up to you what you do
Remind yourself that the urge to self harm is impulsive: you will only feel like engaging in an unhealthy behavior for short bursts of time
Get your friends to make you friendship bracelets: wear them around your wrists to remind you of them when you want to self harm
Write the name of a loved one (a friend, family member, or anyone else who cares about you) where you want to self harm. When you go to self harm remember how much they care and wouldn't want you to harm yourself
Choose your way of thinking, try to resist following old thinking patterns
Remember that you don’t have to hurt yourself just because you're thinking about it
Notice "choices" versus "dilemmas" - Recognize and acknowledge the choices you have NOW
Treat yourself nicely
Lose the "should-could-have to" words. Your future isn't set. Instead try saying "What if"
When an unhealthy behavior is performed, the body often releases 'feel good' chemicals into the brain. These chemicals are what tend to cause an addiction. Here are a few healthier ways to release endorphins.
Exercise. Exercise is a good endorpin release. Take a walk or jog, stretch, or head to the gym.
Give someone a hug. Hugging someone releases oxycontin, which produces positive feelings. If you cannot hug someone, hug a pet, pillow, or stuffed animal.
Soak up the sun. Going outside and absorbing the sun is a good source of Vitamin D and it can also be an excellent mood booster.
Listen to your favorite music or eat your favorite foods. Doing this can help release endorphins, thus helping your mood.
Transitional self harm alternatives
*Content warning: The following alternatives might not be helpful to everyone. It is also possible that they could trigger you. Please utilize them with caution. We recommend you try the other options in this guide before you try these. Click here to continue.*
There are plenty of reasons why people use self harm as a way to cope. These reasons can make it hard to recover from self harm because you struggle with the concept of giving up things that used to calm you down. Sometimes there are alternatives that can help you transition to a place where you no longer need to see blood any longer. Here is a list:
If you are someone that used to carve words, write them down instead. There are plenty of people who feel a compulsion to cut words into their body. If you are one of these people it might be helpful to write the words down, as many times as you need. You can write them in a blog, in a journal, in the screaming thread or you could even write them on a place you would normally cut. The act of writing the words out can help to get them out of your head and can lead to you no longer feeling the urge to harm yourself in that manner. After time you might find that your desire to cut words lessens. If this is something you notice you might be able to slowly stop utilizing this coping skill as much.
If you are someone that cuts because you like seeing blood, you could consider finding a way to satisfy that need without inflicting harm. Some of the things you could consider doing include writing on yourself with red ink, red lipstick, red nail polish or red body paint. These are so much safer than harming yourself and can also be satisfying enough to prevent you from feeling the need to self harm. After you have gotten to a point in recovery where you don't feel as strong of an urge to cut or to see blood, you can slowly start to taper yourself off of utilizing this alternative. While it might be helpful in the initial stage of trying to recover, it is usually best to not rely on alternatives that can unintentionally trigger you.
Cover yourself with plasters where you want to cut
Give yourself a henna or fake tattoo
Take a small bottle of liquid red food coloring uncap the bottle and press its tip against the place you want to cut. Squeeze the bottle slightly and let the food coloring trickle out
Draw on the areas you want to cut using ice that you've made by dropping six or seven drops of red food color into each of the ice-cube tray wells. Alternatively, you could use a red marker, draw on yourself and hold the ice in your hands and let the drops get on the marker
Paint yourself with red tempera paint
On a sketch or photo of yourself, mark in red ink what you want to do. Tear up the picture
Make a soft cloth doll to represent the things you are angry at; cut and tear it instead of yourself
From time to time it can be difficult to take care of yourself when you are struggling. Self-care tasks can serve as an alternative to unhealthy behaviors while they meet your needs.
Plan regularity into your life. It can be easy to forget basic daily tasks, so be sure to plan them at regular times. Going to bed at the same time, eating meals at the same time and taking part in social and leisure activities at the same time on a regular basis will help you to reduce stress and give you more time to focus on your recovery.
Bathe or shower. Take a bath or a shower to clean yourself off. Picture washing your negative thoughts away with the water.
Change into new clothes. Change into something that makes you feel comfortable whether that is a fresh pair of pajamas, sweatpants, or a dressy outfit.
Have a meal or a snack. If you are having difficulty eating, try something small or something that entices you to eat.
Drink water. Staying hydrated will make you feel and look much better.
Take a nap. A nap can sometimes take the thoughts away, and it also gives you and your mind an opportunity to rest and feel restored upon waking up.
Exercise. Exercise of any kind will reduce stress and help you feel better. A short walk, quick run or a sport of your choice will all help.
Learn HALT signals - Hungry, angry, lonely, tired. If you feel any of these things it's time to stop (halt) and do something about them.
Many of the other ideas and strategies in this guide will also contribute to your own self-care.
There are alternatives that can have a long lifespan or serve as an incentive during your recovery.
Reward yourself. Setting up a reward for a certain amount of progress can be a helpful incentive in reaching your goals.
Try the butterfly project. Draw a butterfly (or anything that makes you happy) on yourself and name it. Every time you feel upset, look at that butterfly. Draw as many as you need.
Create paper links. Make paper links for each day that you go without engaging in something unhealthy. In time, connect these links to make a chain. This can help remind you of how far you've come.
Make a progress jar. Collect rocks from outside or purchase decorative rocks in different colors. If you cannot get rocks, use mini pom-poms from the craft section of a store. Each healthy day, place a rock or pom-pom inside the jar. When the jar is filled dump it and start over or use a new jar. Additionally, you can color code your symbols (e.g. white for no unhealthy behaviors, black for relapse, green for a particularly rough day) to track your progress.
Do you have additional ideas that we haven't thought of? Tell us about them in the Support Forums!