Alternatives to Using Self-Harm to Regulate Emotions

May 26, 2022 Kim Berkley

It's not uncommon for those who self-injure to use self-harm to regulate emotions that may be overwhelming or difficult to cope with. But it's a temporary solution, one that does more harm than good—there are better ways to process and manage your feelings.

Using Self-Harm to Regulate Emotions

Using self-harm to regulate emotions sounds counterintuitive, but for some, self-injury appears to open a vent through which we can release our heaviest feelings and walk away unburdened, for a little while, anyway.

It may provide a sense of closure—if you're using it to punish yourself, hurting yourself may make you feel absolved of whatever "crime" you feel guilty about committing. It may be a welcome distraction—at times when emotional pain feels overwhelming and impossible to bear, the relative simplicity of physical pain can come almost as a relief. Or it may trigger a physical response that makes you feel better in the moment, such as euphoria or dissociation.

The problem here (actually, there are several) is that the relief self-injury provides doesn't last. Like an addiction, you keep having to go back to it to sustain that relief you sought the first time around. In some cases, self-harm can escalate to mortally dangerous levels of damage—even when you're not actually suicidal.

And, of course, there's the old saying that the medicine shouldn't be worse than the cure. Hurting yourself to feel better, or even just to feel less, winds up leaving you far worse off than you were before, even if you don't realize it right away. Not only does it harm your body, but it can trigger more difficult emotions in the long run, such as guilt, sorrow, anger, and hopelessness, creating a vicious cycle that becomes difficult to break.

Difficult—but not impossible to break.

How to Regulate Emotions Without Self-Harm

Finding new, healthy methods of managing your feelings (and stress levels) plays a key role in recovering from self-injury. Some great alternatives to using self-harm to regulate emotions that I've used in the past include:

  • Organizing my space—Physically sorting out clutter helps me gain perspective and calm down.
  • Taking a minute to process—Recognizing what you feel enables you to choose more effective ways to cope.
  • Practicing mindfulness—Guided meditations and simple breathing exercises, like box breathing, are a good place to start.
  • Using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques—Reassessing and reframing thought distortions like "I will never get better" work for me.
  • Integrating self-care into my daily routine—For example, I set aside time for hobbies such as reading and playing video games.
  • Journaling and art therapy—Anything that gives me a nonharmful creative outlet for my feelings can work.

I haven't tried it yet, but I'm also interested in distress tolerance and other dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) techniques. If I try them in the future, I'll be sure to share my thoughts sometime here on the blog.

Do you have other techniques you like to turn to (or would be interested in trying) to regulate your emotions without self-harm? Please share your ideas in the comments—there is no such thing as too many healthy coping mechanisms.

APA Reference
Kim Berkley (2022, May 26). Alternatives to Using Self-Harm to Regulate Emotions, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Kim Berkley

Find Kim on Instagram, Facebook and her blog.

May, 31 2022 at 5:17 pm

Hi Kim,
Thanks for creating this space and share your own experience, it’s very insightful.

June, 6 2022 at 11:09 am

Hi Nelly,
Thanks so much for this comment. I'm glad you've found the content here worth a read! I wouldn't be here, of course, without the rest of the HealthyPlace team—this platform was around long before I got here. But I'm grateful for the opportunity to help people in my own way, and turn some of my worst memories into something good and healing. :)
Take care,

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