Create your own Coping Strategies

The following is a list of ways I discovered or was taught to resist my urges to cut.  I hope it proves useful to others as as they try to figure out what works best for them.

Identifying problem areas

Identify triggers: Pay careful attention to what “sets you off” when you’re in a situation where you feel the urge to self-injure.  What specifically about that situation bothered/distressed you?  Think of other situations that helped trigger you.  Do you see any patterns?  What types of emotions and thoughts are you responding to when you self-injure?

After I noticed what types of situations triggered me, I did my best to avoid them or research coping skills to help me deal with my negative emotions.  It’s impossible to avoid troubling situations entirely, but I’ve found that knowing where my weak spots are helps me keep my guard up for when they do happen.

Goal: Understand your triggers so you can handle them more appropriately.

Identify problematic locations: Where do you go when you self-injure?  Try to avoid going there when you feel the urge.  If you use something to hurt yourself, where do you go to find it?  Avoid these areas whenever possible.

I’ve found that it’s never a good idea to linger in places that have the tools I use to self-injure.  I trained myself to leave the room whenever I feel tempted to use a particular tool.

Goal: Reduce opportunity to self-injure.

Have access to multiple people in case of emergency

Emergency phone contact(s): Set this up ahead of time with someone you know/trust pretty well.  This could be a family member or a friend.  Make sure they understand that you may be calling them with no advanced warning or even at odd hours of the day.  Make sure the person is comfortable with being your emergency contact.

It’s great to have multiple phone contacts in case your first choice is unavailable to take your call.

Goal: The person can help talk you down when you have the overwhelming urge to self-injure.

Emergency social contact(s): When you feel like self-injuring, ask someone if you can chat, hangout, go somewhere or do something fun.

I like this strategy because it involves others without me having to tell them what the problem is if I don’t want to.

Goal: Getting involved in an activity with someone can help take your mind off your troubles.  Even if that doesn’t work, being around someone else still means I won’t be self-injuring.

Get out of your room

Go out in public: Go someplace interesting if you can.  If you don’t have somewhere like that, go to any store (that doesn’t carry anything that would trigger you) and browse without buying anything.

I did this many times whenever I couldn’t bring myself to use my emergency contacts or they were unavailable.

Goal: For me, being out in public is a safe environment because I only want to follow through with self-injuring urges when I’m alone.

Go for a walk: The physical activity will be good for you and will give you the opportunity to think more clearly about your situation.  Use this time to think of other positive strategies.

This is usually the first thing I do when I don’t know what to do.  When I’m feeling overwhelmed, it’s easier to temporarily remove myself from the stressful situation and calm down than it is to remain in it and not self-injure.

Goal: Remove yourself from a triggering situation.

Use your car as a safe place: Keep your car free of tools for self-injury.  Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, go sit in it and sort through your thoughts.  Don’t drive, just stay there as long as you need to.  You can cry or journal in relative privacy.  If you know being angry is one of your trigger emotions, use this safe place as a chance to cool off.

This strategy is useful for when you don’t have time to go out somewhere and get involved in something.  I used it a lot when I wanted to talk about what was bothering me but didn’t feel comfortable talking to others about it.  I would sit in my car and pray or talk out loud to myself.   Somehow hearing myself talking about my problems gave me the same sense of expression that journaling does for a lot of people.  I could blow off my steam without having to worry about how other people might receive it.

Goal: Create a safe environment for sorting through emotions/problems.

Keep your hands occupied

Have a go-to project: Take up a hobby and start a project.  Ideas include: art, handcrafts, photography, cooking, design software.  Do whatever strikes your fancy.  This will give you something to do to feel productive instead of merely distracting yourself.  Make a commitment to get involved in your project as often as possible when the urge to self-injure strikes.

This strategy was particularly useful to me when my self-injuring urges were much more frequent.  I felt like there were entire days where I puttered around trying to distract myself with nothing to show for it at the end of the day.  I grew tired of this and hoped to engage in pastimes that would help me feel proud of myself both for learning something new and creating something others could appreciate.

Goal: Increase the victorious feelings associated with overcoming the urge to self-injure on a daily basis.  What you create with your hobby serves as a visual reminder of your strength to say no.

Keep your mind occupied

Get involved in meaningful activities: Volunteer for a good cause or get involved in a group activity.  Even if you only commit to a couple hours a week, that’s a couple hours you won’t be struggling with self-injury.  You also might develop some friendships or cultivate new interests you didn’t have before.  If you don’t know where to volunteer, you can always find opportunities in your city online.

I always liked kids, so I volunteered to help out with childcare for toddlers at a local church for one morning a week.  I didn’t even know how to change diapers or anything; but the people there were willing to teach me everything I needed to know.  I ended up getting paid for it and was asked to do additional babysitting because the kids liked me so much.  It even became something I looked forward to each week.

Goal: Spend time thinking about others instead of being absorbed in your own problems.

Using your room to help you

Keep your room well lit: This may not be true for everybody, but some people find it easier to get depressed in darkness.  Uncover the windows during the day.  Keep the lights on until you’re ready for bed.

I didn’t realize I was one of these people until I thought about why I turned the lights off whenever I wanted to self-injure.  One day, I wondered what would happen if I made my room as bright as possible and discovered that I felt less like hurting myself than I did when the lights were dim or off.

Goal: Light can have a subtle effect on mood.  Use it to your advantage by keeping it around you as much as possible.

Put up photos of people you love & admire: Put them anywhere you want in your room, but be sure to put some near your bed where you can easily see them.  When you look at them, take at least a few moments to linger in the pleasant memories you share with each person.  Remember how much they mean to you.  Remember how much you mean to them.

I often feel alone in the world when I deal with my struggles, so I’ve found it helpful to keep reminders around that prove I’m not always as alone as I feel.  It’s just another way to use logic to combat chaotic emotions.

Goal: Focus on life’s positives instead of just its negatives.

Remove Triggers: Take everything out of your room that would give you the idea to self-injure.  Despite however much you may feel those things help you, you must get rid of them if you ultimately want to get better.

It was hard to give up my trigger material.  Something in me felt like I needed it.  I wanted to keep it around to “encourage” myself to self-injure when I couldn’t go through with it on my own.  Yet, relinquishing this method of control was the first step I had to take to get better.  It constantly undermined all my efforts to become a healthier person until I got rid of it.

Goal: Reduce frequency of urges to self-injure and enable my recovery journey.

Remove Tools: Permanently discard anything in your room that you would use to hurt yourself.  This includes not only items you have already used but also items you are considering using.  However, throwing them in your trash can won’t work because that doesn’t stop you from digging it out later if you have a change of heart.  You need to make sure it ends up somewhere you could never go for it again.

I had to get very creative with this strategy.  Some of the stuff I tried might sound silly, but it definitely worked for me.  For instance, I didn’t trust myself to pick up a tool and throw it out because the moment I picked it up, the feel of the tool in my hand would trigger the urge to cut.  So, I would wear an oven mitt while I disposed of everything.  Towels work too.  Whatever provides enough padding to avoid triggering sensations.  Then, I would try to find a dumpster, where the walls were too high for me to reach in, or a public trash can, where I would be too embarrassed to go digging.  There were even times when I believed I would change my mind halfway through my journey to get rid of my really small tools.  For those, I detached the screen from my window, closed my eyes and threw it as hard as I could, waiting several seconds to make sure I wouldn’t see where it landed.  However, it is important to make sure no one is in the area when you do this, as you don’t want to accidentally hurt someone else.  Sometimes, I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of my tools, so I would ask someone I trusted to.  They were usually one of my emergency contacts.

Remind yourself of who you want to be

Journal (do before setting realistic goals): Imagine your ideal self five or so years from now and write about it.  Spend time evaluating which things in your life would have to change for you to become your ideal self.  If you already journal, be sure to address this subject in your entries.  If you don’t journal, consider starting a journal focused on this subject.

I did a lot of journaling to express my negative emotions but grew tired with venting all the time.  I didn’t want to reread those journals to remember how badly I felt.  I began to journal about my ideal self so I would have something positive to read, a goal for the future that I could revisit.  In this way, journaling stopped feeling so depressing and helped me feel more hopeful.

Goal: Focus on positive thoughts and recognize the need for change in order to fulfill your dreams.

Set Realistic Goals (do after journaling): Identify the things in your life that you have the power to change to become your ideal self.  Create a brief list of these things.  Choose one you are willing to work on starting today (ex. “I would like to have more friends.”)  Never start tomorrow because it’s too easy to forget.  Identify one way you could go about achieving your goal (ex. “I could initiate more conversations with people.”)  Design a specific plan to achieve your goal gradually over a specific period of time. (ex. “At the end of 6 weeks, I would like to initiate 20 conversations a week.  I initiate about 10 conversations a week now.  This means I have to initiate 2 more conversations each week to meet my goal.)  Get an accountability partner to help you follow through on your goal.

I didn’t stick to my plan perfectly, but overall I noticed an increase in the number of times I initiated conversations.  More importantly, each time I initiated a conversation I got more and more practice at introducing myself and connecting with people, which left me better prepared for the next time I did it.  It helped boost my self-confidence.

Goal: Slowly change yourself into the type of person you ultimately want to become.

Delay making the decision to self-injure for as long as possible

“If it’s a good idea now, it’ll be a good idea later.”: If you are about to self-injure because you are convinced it is the only/best/right thing to in that moment, then this might be the strategy for you.  Tell yourself, “If it’s a good idea now, it’ll be a good idea later.” Instead of hurting yourself, get out of your room and do an activity.  Read a book.  Talk to someone.  Play a game.  Exercise.  Go for a walk.   Do whatever for at least 30 minutes.

At the end of my 30 minutes, I was usually calmer so I didn’t feel like self-injuring or I was so engrossed in my activity that I forgot about it.

Goal: Decrease the likelihood of self-injury by creating a window of time to focus on something else.

Commit to doing a list of preselected strategies: Compile a list of strategies for avoiding self-injury that have proven effective for you or sound like they might work.  Make the list as long as possible.  Commit to doing each strategy when you feel the urge to self-injure.  Get an accountability partner, like one of your emergency phone contacts, to hold you accountable to this.

At first, this was difficult, but eventually it became the most helpful strategy I’ve ever used.  Even though I very rarely self-injure now (once or twice a year), I still use this strategy to deal with the many urges I experience.  I’ve made my list as long as possible so that at least one thing on it usually works for me in any situation.  At the bottom of my list is calling one of my emergency phone contacts to tell them I did literally everything I could think of.  This puts them in the position to suggest more things or, at the very least, gives me someone to talk to.

Goal: Strengthen coping skills to avoid self-injury

Release anger in non-damaging ways

Physical releaseRemove all breakable objects from around your bed.  Try punching the mattress or pillow.  Dig your fingers into the blankets and squeeze them as hard as you can.  Throw your pillow on the floor.  Have a fit.  Just keep it on your bed.

I’ve only felt the need to do this when I’m REALLY REALLY angry.  I’m a quiet, polite person, so this form of expression doesn’t come naturally to me.  I kneel in the center of my bed, give myself a five-count and then let loose as powerfully as I can for about a minute.  That’s about how long it takes me to get the anger out of my system, and then I start crying.  I don’t give myself a hard time about it.  I just let the tears flow, clean myself up and get on with my day.

Goal: Release anger instead of letting it build.

Emotional release: Listen to songs (without lyrics that trigger) that help express your current mood for about 15 minutes.  Then listen to songs that remind you of the mood you wish to have.

I have a playlist on YouTube for my sad/angry songs and another for the songs that inspire me.  It’s very efficient.  I routinely use these to help regulate my mood.

Goal: Emotional release and mood regulation.

Take a hot shower: This can help relieve the tension in your muscles.  Make the shower water as hot as you can comfortably withstand.  Let it spray directly on your upper back for 5-10 minutes.  Increasing the water pressure can sometimes help too.  Another trick is to put your hands on the shower walls and push as hard as you can for a really long time using your whole hands or just your fingertips.  If any of this works for you, you should feel more physically relaxed afterward.

I do this a lot right before I go to bed.  Instead of staying awake thinking about how angry I am, I’m usually relaxed enough to fall asleep not too long after my head hits the pillow.

Goal: Accomplish relaxation in a short amount of time.

Put reality into perspective

Reality Check: If you find yourself having thoughts like “I always mess things up,” or “Things never go well for me,” then this strategy could be helpful.  Try to catch yourself thinking in “always” and “never” terms.  Ask yourself if those statements are truly accurate 100% of the time.  Is it really always/never?  Sometimes when you’re in a mood, it can be easy to round up from what feels like most of the time to always.  Remind yourself of the exceptions.  Write down times where things went well for you, when you succeeded in something you tried.  If you have trouble thinking of times, ask people who know you.  Keep the list so you can look at it later when you catch yourself thinking in extreme terms again.

My list of exceptions started out small, but I was able to feel better about myself when it grew because other people contributed to it.  It was really helpful to have other people remind me of my positive life experiences because it made them count more somehow…like they were extra significant because other people thought they were.

Goal: Enhance self-esteem by focusing on the truth—what is real instead of only what feels real.

Ideas to remember when dealing with self-injury

Being alone is not a good idea.

Have multiple strategies at the ready because different combinations of situations and moods will need to be handled differently.  What worked in one instance may not work in another.  This does not necessarily mean a strategy is bad, just that now is not the right time to use it.

Don’t make big decisions (ex. Change your plans for the future or evaluate your life) when being extremely moody.  The reason behind this is when you’re in a negative emotional state, you will be more likely to remember the negative events in life than the positive.  Somehow the negative will seem to outweigh the good when that evaluation is not necessarily accurate (resulting in false ideas like “This always happens to me”, “I’m never good enough”, etc).  Recognize yourself as temporarily judgment impaired and wait until you are in a calmer, more rational state to make big decisions.

Ladies—recognize the role PMS can have in strengthening your urge to self-injure.  I know that, for me, being angry can put me over the edge.  It’s all too easy to have frustrating events become 10x as frustrating during my period.  That’s why I make it a point not to be too hard on myself during that time either.  There’s no sense in letting my self-esteem take a hit based on the inaccurate, overblown emotional evaluations mentioned above.  Again, it’s probably a good idea to wait until later to make big decisions.

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