Harm Reduction for Everyone


Usually, when you hear the words “harm reduction”, you’re thinking about illegal drugs or perhaps alcohol abuse. Needle exchange is a good example: if someone is going to inject drugs, let’s at least be sure that they aren’t also injecting disease – less disease is less harm.
But the truth is, we all self-harm. It’s not even inherent just to humans: stressed-out animals self-harm too! One of our cats obsessively grooms her belly if she’s stressed, which results in sores where she’s torn off her fur. The resolution for her is lots of love and affection, and I think that’s true for humans as well. If we’re self-harming – whether that’s with drug or alcohol abuse, or “sugar abuse”, or “media abuse”, or whatever else we get up to when we’re stressed, usually the bottom line is that something is missing, or unfulfilled.

That’s pretty critical, actually: If we’re self-harming, it’s because something feels unfulfilled. Recognizing that fact can go a long way in helping reduce guilt and shame. When I’m feeling stressed and unfulfilled, my favorite tool for self-harm is sugar. Just all the sugar, into my face! Even if I’ve had enough treats that my belly hurts – emotionally, it still isn’t enough. AND there’s a second problem, and that’s the self-talk that accompanies self-harm: not only am I eating all this sugar, but I’m also telling myself how bad I am, how unhealthy I know it is to eat this much sugar, that I’m going to gain weight, that I’m getting older and it’ll be harder to get it off again, that I don’t have any self-control…

This is clearly a downward spiral, and all because I really needed some time off and some TLC.

The ideal solution when stress and other hard emotions hit is self-care instead of self-harm. But often when we’re in a place emotionally that we want to self-harm, self-care as an option is long behind us – either we don’t recognize that it’s a thing we could do, or it doesn’t feel like a satisfying alternative. “I had such a lousy day, I’m just going to stay up REALLY LATE watching movies and eating coconut ice cream.” At that point, I don’t really care that what I really need is to go right straight to bed to help me feel better in the morning!

The more I started becoming aware of these behaviors in my life – I am choosing to stay up really late as a way to cope with a bad day, but I’m just making myself more tired for tomorrow – the more I started to realize that the concept of harm reduction can be implemented broadly. So I started! I now have a whole list of ways to implement harm reduction in daily life, and I’m going to share it with you, one blog post at a time, over the next several months. I’ll tag each of the posts with Harm Reduction so that you can follow the series!

The concept of harm reduction isn’t that we’re going to try to quit, or to tighten our discipline, or guilt ourselves out of whatever behavior we’re feeling is necessary at the time. It’s that we’re going to take a moment to evaluate how that behavior would be harmful and see if we could make it less harmful. For example:

I feel stress.
I want DONUTS!

stop! donuts are harmful to me personally in these ways: they contain gluten and other stuff i’m allergic to, they have a darn lot of sugar, and they contain a lot of junk ingredients.

is there any way to have donuts (the thing that I want to use as a comfort) that would be less harmful?

Kinnikinnick makes gluten free, dairy free donuts, and i like them!
(there may be others available too!)

Great! I can have donuts that are at least 1/3 less harmful than if I just went to Dunkins!

By making sure that I’m not piling shame and guilt on top of my desire for sugary treats, I leave myself free to do what I have to do in the moment to fill my need AND make room to do whatever I can to make the situation less harmful, or even to incorporate other self-care actions into my sugary splurge.

If you’d like to follow the series of blog posts I’m writing on the topic of harm-reduction and self-care, just check out the Harm Reduction tag! There are recipes for harm-reduced treats, ideas for teas to support your efforts, and lots of other things that I hope will be helpful for you!

And don’t forget to share your favorite strategies for harm-reduction in the comments below!


  1. Kelly Jones on 23 January, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    I’m not one for reading blogs. But the universe lead me right to you..and BOY did I need to read this today!
    Thank you….

  2. katja on 23 January, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    Hi, Kelly! I’m so glad it was helpful for you!

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