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12 Self-Harm Substitutes Inspired By The Harm Reduction Theory

Self-harm is often a subject people try to avoid talking about, especially in the context of harm minimisation and the use of self-harm substitutes. However, I think talking about self-harm substitutes in this kind of context is important to the conversation, no matter if some might find it uncomfortable.




This article will talk about self-harm minimisation strategies that involve self-harm substitutes that might be triggering for some people, although no content will glorify self-harm. This article will talk about self-harm in a realistic and helpful way for the purpose of trying to support those who self-harm with their recovery.



What Is Self-Harm?


Laye-Gindhu and Schonert-Reichl (2005) described self-harm as being a voluntary and deliberate act to physically cause injury to oneself that is non-life-threatening with intent and not an act of suicidal behaviour.


Examples of self-harming

  • Cutting.
  • Severely scratching your skin.
  • Burning or scalding yourself.
  • Hitting yourself or banging your head (something I did – Traction Alopecia: The Hair Pulling Question).
  • Punching hard objects.
  • Throwing yourself into a wall.




Why Do People Self-Harm?


There are several reasons why someone might engage in self-harm. Some people might engage in self-harm as a way to cope with feelings like self-loathing, sadness, emptiness, guilt, and rage. In short, because they have strong negative emotions, they’re unable to manage. Thus, self-harming can be used as a way to release pain and tension building up inside. Self-harm might also be used to express feelings the person is unable to verbalise in words, which is something that needs to be watched for in those with learning disabilities.


Another common reason for engaging in self-harm might be due to needing to gain some sort of control in their lives or as a punishment for something they have done or something they’ve imagined they’ve done. Not only that, but it could even be used as a distraction from other life circumstances or as a way to feel something if the person feels numb so they can feel alive.


My Self-Harm Story


I became suicidal when I was eight years old and on an almost daily basis, I would have an emotional breakdown and take the meat cleaver from the kitchen drawer and stand at the kitchen sink crying as I thought about chopping off my left hand. Luckily, I never went through with it. But I’ve had to deal with almost daily suicidal ideation ever since my first breakdown first started at eight.


I didn’t start cutting myself until I was in my late teens/early twenties, and it only lasted a few years before the unhealthy coping strategy was no longer needed.


I can’t speak for how or why other people do it, or what they get from doing it, but for me, I got into cutting myself because other people I knew were doing it and I need a way to manage my suicidal impulses. Cutting was a normalised behaviour within the subculture I belonged to. The only difference was that they would cut themselves where others could see. I did not. I harmed my upper arm, legs, and abdomen. All places that I would always be able to cover up unless I was naked.


But even then, it wasn’t something I engaged in right away because people within my subculture were doing it. I was badly struggling with my mental health because I was developing drug-induced psychosis, which would go on to leave me with two anxiety disorders that trigger psychotic episodes for the rest of my life.


I was an emotional train wreck during this time, and I was hiding it from everyone around me. Not a good idea.


I was having so many emotional breakdowns and struggling with psychosis all at the same time that something was going to give. My suicidal ideation and willingness to follow through on my thoughts was a constant problem. Then one day I went for a walk late at night crying and just cut myself. It didn’t help with the breakdown per se, but it gave me a way to channel my unrelenting pain, and that was enough.


To me, cutting didn’t make me feel better. It was more close to being a coping mechanism, just a bad one. One that would stop me from tipping over the edge into the abyss. That’s because my suicide attempts seem to be atypical. I don’t plan; I don’t think about it, I just do it as an automated response of spiralling too deep into despair. Usually, I’d try to take my life within minutes of reaching such an emotional state.


Each time I cut myself, it would only be once or twice each time, but often they’d be so deep and wide that the muscle tissue would be exposed. So I don’t have many scars, but some of the ones I do have are big.


I also didn’t harm myself that frequently. Cutting myself was only something I did when I was having an emotional breakdown, but even then, not every time. I had to be in a state where I was slipping into my suicidal despair. In short, I was using self-harm as a way to stop myself from trying to take my own life. My last effort to save my life, you could say.


The picture is split in two with the top image being a black and white photo of a black man with his head in his hands and the bottom image being of a black and white photo of a woman crouched down with her head resting on a bed. The two images are separated by the article title - 12 Self-Harm Substitutes Inspired By The Harm Minimisation Theory


Thus, when I learnt to control and suppress my emotions, I stopped entering a state where I would try to take my own life within minutes of this feeling hitting me. Without that crippling suicidal despite, I had no reason to self-harm anymore.


The last time I cut myself was also the last time I tried to kill myself in 2003, and up until last year, I hadn’t entered an actionable suicidal state until the summer of 2020. But I didn’t fall back into my bad coping strategy of cutting myself when that happened.


Until recently, when I wrote my articles, Life With My Hair Destroying Behaviours and Life With My Hair Destroying Behaviours, I hadn’t realised that other behaviours I was engaging in that led to me permanently losing my hair, leaving me with a patchy mess, was also a form of self-harming. But I won’t go into that here as we’ll be here all day if I do. But feel free to check out those two articles by clicking here and here, if you’re interested in finding out more.




My Thoughts On Self-Harm


People should be aware that those who do self-harm have their own personal reasons for doing so. Meaning, you can’t just see all those who do it or did do it as being the same.


For some, self-harming is akin to being an automated behaviour. Like anything you engage in regularly, you’ll start doing it without thinking. I know I had the same issues with my hair-damaging behaviours that caused me to develop permanent traction alopecia. In that kind of situation, I personally believe it is better seen as being like an addiction, because often you know it’s not helping you, but you can’t stop yourself from doing it, anyway.


Thus, a lot of the work done within the field of addiction can be quite helpful with this kind of self-harming. Such as identifying triggers; finding a replacement; creating a healthy rewards system; and creating a reduction plan rather than going cold turkey, which can, in some cases, make it easier to recover.


This addiction comparison approach for self-harming can also make it easier to explain it to those who don’t understand self-harming.


Furthermore, self-harming, in general, isn’t something you can try to force someone to stop doing, it is only something that you can try to talk to the person about in a caring, empathetic manner to try to help them change this behaviour of their own accord.


To those reading this that are engaging in self-harm, know that you can and will get better, and there are people and places you can go to help recover. Stay strong. You are deserving of a good and happy life.




Standard Self-Harm Alternatives


  1. Do something creative.
  2. Go for a walk.
  3. Play some music.
  4. Watch a film or a TV show.
  5. Hug yourself.
  6. Make a coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.
  7. Make a wish list.
  8. Read a book.
  9. Play a video game.
  10. Visit a friend or family member.
  11. Call or message a friend, family member, or support line.
  12. Go for a drive.
  13. Go to the park.
  14. Have a bath.
  15. Write in your journal.
  16. Use aromatherapy oils.
  17. Exercise.
  18. Hug yourself or a teddy.
  19. Count to 100.
  20. Do chores.


Harm Minimisation Theory


Harm minimisation, also known as the harm reduction method, is a well-established approach based on strong empirical evidence originally designed to reduce substance abuse (Measham, 2006). In the field of addiction, harm minimisation made reducing harm the primary motive rather than abstinence, which is hard to achieve and riddled with failure if abstinence is the only goal (Strang and Farrell, 1992).


By creating a treatment situation that isn’t only about abstinence, you can work with the person experiencing substance dependence to take back control of their lives, work through a series of goals (Strang and Farrell, 1992), and help people be safe while they’re doing it. Not only that, but it also helps to make society safer as well, so it’s not just focused on the individual.


According to Measham (2006), harm minimisation reduces harm to individuals, as well as protecting society from the selling and consumption of illegal drugs and their paraphilia, by applying measures to tackle them. For example, providing clean needle exchanges to people who inject and a safe box to store used needles reduces the risk of blood-borne viruses to the user, but also to the community as needles are less likely to be abandoned in parks and on the street.


Just to be clear, when harm minimisation is applied to self-harming, it’s not about condoning self-harm, but rather accepting that the self-harmer is going to cause themself self-injury regardless, so it’s about supporting them to be safe while they learn alternative healthy coping behaviours (Gutridge, 2010).




Harm Minimisation Self-Harm Substitutes


In an ideal world, self-harming and self-injury wouldn’t be an issue and people who engage in those behaviours would easily be able to switch to other behaviours like drawing or writing instead. Unfortunately, life isn’t that simple. That said, if you are able to do that, then that’s fantastic. Please try such methods like the ones I noted above.


If traditional methods of distraction don’t help, however, and you’re already self-harming, such as cutting yourself, then snapping rubber bands could be a viable alternative as a way to practise harm minimisation. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, then it’s the process of finding ways to make established behaviours less harmful. It’s a practice often used in substance abuse, with clean needles and methadone subscriptions being another example of harm minimisation. That’s because it’s unrealistic that someone can go cold turkey from being dependent on something like heroin.


Snapping Rubber bands is a method I talked about in a previous article, where I argued about how such a method could cause someone to develop self-harming behaviours. However, there is a possible good use for snapping rubber bands, and that might be to help someone overcome other, more harmful, self-harming methods. The self-harmer can then formulate a plan to stop snapping rubber bands once the transition has been made, such as reducing the number of times they can snap the rubber band in any situation.


Another important harm-minimisation step for people who cut themselves is to make sure they do it as safely as possible. This can be doing something like cleaning the area you plan to cut and cleaning the object you plan to cut yourself with, and then you could apply a plaster to the area afterwards. All these steps would help reduce the risk of the wound getting infected.


You could also complete a safety plan so you can plan ahead on how to handle your urge to self-harm or use the safety plan workbook to distract you in the moment. If you’re interested in downloading a free copy of a safety plan and a safety plan workbook, then you can do so by clicking here and if you want to read my article about how to use either or both of these, then you can do so by clicking here. This method can be useful because the urge to self-harm will pass, and if you can ride that urge until it passes, then you’ll train yourself to realise that you can get through such episodes without self-harming.


Self-harm substitutes

  1. Snapping a rubber band around your wrist.
  2. Hold an ice cube in your hand.
  3. Rub an ice cube on the area you want to harm.
  4. Squeeze a stress toy.
  5. Take a cold shower.
  6. Eat a lemon.
  7. Scream into a pillow.
  8. Tear up some paper.
  9. Hit a pillow.
  10. Using a red felt-tip pen, draw lines on your skin where you’d normally cut yourself.
  11. Put hands in freezing cold water.
  12. Stand on a Lego brick.


A picture of a red Sharpe pen on a wooden table top to represent one of the 12 Self-Harm Substitutes Inspired By The Harm Minimisation Theory


As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences of self-harm and harm minimisation in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget to bookmark my site and if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.


Lastly, if you’d like to support my blog, then you can make a donation of any size below as well. Until next time, Unwanted Life readers.







Gutridge, K. (2010). Safer self-injury or assisted self-harm?. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 31, 79–92. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s11017-010-9135-z.

Laye-Gindhu, A., & Schonert-Reichl, K.A. (2005). Nonsuicidal Self-Harm Among Community Adolescents: Understanding the “Whats” and “Whys” of Self-Harm. J Youth Adolescence, 34(5), 447–457. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-005-7262-z.

Measham, F. (2006). The new policy mix: Alcohol, harm minimisation, and determined drunkenness in contemporary society. International Journal of Drug Policy, 17(4), 258-268. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2006.02.013.

Strang, J. & Farrell, M. (1992). Harm minimisation for drug misusers. BMJ, 304(6835), 1127–1128. Retrieved from https://dx.doi.org/10.1136%2Fbmj.304.6835.1127 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1882091/pdf/bmj00071-0007.pdf.



Harmless – A self-harm and suicide support organisation.

LifeSIGNS – Self-injury guidance and support network.

Alumina – Self-harm support for 14-19-year-olds.

Self Injury Support – Support service for women and girls affected by self-injury, trauma, and abuse.

Global Crisis Lines and UK Crisis Lines – Two mental health support information pages listed on this site.

46 thoughts on “12 Self-Harm Substitutes Inspired By The Harm Reduction Theory

  1. Very well written post, congratulations. it is very interesting. I wasn’t aware of all of this info.
    Thanks for sharinghttps://uncuaderno4cero.wordpress.com

  2. Such an important post, I had a friend who self harmed and when she was in recovery she said that running ice along her skin helped her, she is doing much better now.

  3. What an incredible post to create. I can’t imagine the bravery it took to put these words onto the page. I admire your openness so much.
    In a previous job, I worked with a child who self harmed. He was very small but doing that was his only feeling of release. There often weren’t massive triggers like you see in the films. Simple things, sometimes he wouldn’t even realise he was doing it to himself. We worked to get him some help, meetings with a play therapist etc.


  4. This was such an interesting read and thank you for sharing your story! I always admire the honesty of your posts and trying to help other people. I had friend that self armed and sometimes it was the only way to release what they were feeling and how hurt they were. These are all great tips and i am sure they will be helpful to someone!

  5. So important for these alternatives to be recognised! I’m a fan of the rubber band myself, that tends to be my go to one. Getting a safety plan is also a must do!

  6. Thank you for sharing these tips. I hope they help someone who needs them. I’ve heard of using a marker or holding an ice cube, but the others are all new to me. I wish there wasn’t such a stigma surrounding mental health issues. We could do so much more, as a society, to help those who are struggling.

  7. I definitely learned a lot. I hope this brings comfort to others to know they are not alone and I hope these tips help them. I’m glad you are bring light to this topic.

  8. Thank you for sharing this post. Sincerely appreciate your vulnerability and honesty. It is so important that we each stay aware and vigilant to help others that are hurting. This post brings awareness in many ways and I believe will be helpful. ?

  9. I think minimisation techniques are much more effective than the standard ones. Personally I recently found out that plucking my eyebrows is a great replacement, as it causes some pain but is also completely safe and socially acceptable.

  10. The biggest and most difficult thing is the accept that you need help. So beautifully expressed, articulated and researched. Loved the way you conveyed the message. Keep writing. Looking forward ?

  11. I can’t imagine how much strength and courage you put into writing these words and sharing your story. Although writing about ourself often help us to see ourself from an external point of view, it helps to rationalize, and in a certain sense, it helps to accept oureself more. I’m sorry to read about so much suffering, but I’ve also read so much hope, and the desire you have to give support to those who are or have been in the same situation as you. From every negative event you can always draw a lot of light, and you did so. I hope that your path of rebirth can take you away from all the negative moments. I wish you the best 🙂

    xx Dasynka

  12. Info I wish I had known when I was a teen. Thanks for being willing to talk about the uncomfortable stuff.

  13. I’m really sorry you had to experience the pain that you have. As a mental health first aider, I don’t know too much but I had been informed of some of these substitutes during the course. Some of these I didn’t know about, and I’ll be adding these to my portfolio that I’m creating to help me with this role. Thank you very much, I found this very useful, and I’m sure others will find something in this post that will help them too. You’re doing a wonderful job.

  14. Great tips!! And thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on this. I’ve heard a lot of stories about self-harm and it’s not good for us!

  15. Thank you for writing this. My daughter suffered with this and the stigma surrounding it made it hard to get help. Thankfully through therapy, prayer and the right medication, she is healthy and no longer self harms. I hope others use your strategies written to help them.

  16. Insightful post, and thank you for sharing your story. I love the Self Harm Alternatives! I smoked (not quite the same, but a terrible unhealthy addiction) for 19 years and I used a list similar to that one, when I ditched that habit. My goal was always to substitute a healthy habit for an unhealthy one. Thank you for posting about real life situations that NEED to be talked about.

    • I did something similar when I gave up smoking, first using lollipops to keep my mouth and hands busy, then later on using vaping with zero nicotine eliquids with fruit flavours

  17. Thank you for sharing this info and spreading awareness about self-harm. I’m sure someone will benefit greatly from this post.

  18. A difficult topic, but an important one. As a child, I would have monster temper tantrums when my world got misaligned (welcome to OCPD), and the only thing that would calm me is a spanking. My parents are wrenched with guilt about that, even though I was never mad at them for it.

    Fast forward to adulthood, and the behavior was internalized. If I couldn’t get my brain around something or if things didn’t go well, it would trigger the same fuses-blown reaction that usually ended with me harming myself or something I owned. Hitting myself in the head was my usual response, as was binge eating.

    Now that I have the language and understanding of why I felt the need to hurt myself, it’s mostly disappeared. However, one could say distance running is its own form of self harm, so I do a workout called a Fartlek when I’m in bad shape.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  19. This is a really important post. I had a friend who often harmed herself. It took her a lot of willpower to give up and recover from it. This is wonderful information for anyone who is Harming themself.

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