Understanding cutting and self-harm
Self-harm is often a way of expressing and dealing with deep emotional pain. As strange as it may sound to those on the outside, hurting yourself can make you feel better. Injuring yourself may be the only way you know how to cope with feelings like sadness, self-loathing, emptiness, guilt, and rage.
The problem is that the relief that comes from self-harming doesn’t last very long. It’s like putting on a Band-Aid when what you really need are stitches. It may temporarily stop the bleeding, but it doesn’t fix the underlying injury.
If you’re like most people who self-injure, you probably try to keep what you’re doing secret. Maybe you feel ashamed or maybe you just think that no one would understand. Ultimately, the secrecy and guilt affects your relationships with your friends and family members and the way you feel about yourself. It can make you feel even more lonely, worthless, and trapped.
Myths and facts about cutting and self-harm
Myth: People who cut and self-injure are trying to get attention.
Fact: The truth is that people who self-harm generally harm themselves in secret. They aren’t trying to manipulate others or draw attention to themselves. Actually shame and fear can make it very difficult to come forward and ask for help.
Myth: People who self-injure are crazy and/or dangerous.
Fact: It is true that many people who self-harm suffer from anxiety, depression, or a previous trauma—just like millions of others in the general population, but that doesn’t make them “crazy or dangerous”. Self-injury is how they cope. Sticking a label like “crazy” or “dangerous” on a person is not accurate or helpful.
Myth: People who self-injure want to die.
Fact: People who self-injure usually do not want to die. When they self-harm, they are not trying to commit suicide —they are trying to cope with their problems and pain. They often feel that self-injury may be a way of helping themselves go on living. However, in the long-term, people who self-injure have a much higher risk of suicide, which is why it’s important to seek help.
Signs and symptoms of cutting and self-harm
Self-harm includes anything you do to intentionally injure yourself. Some of the more common ways include:
- cutting or severely scratching your skin
- burning or scalding yourself
- hitting yourself or banging your head
- punching things or throwing your body against walls and hard objects
- sticking objects into your skin
- intentionally preventing wounds from healing
- swallowing poisonous substances or inappropriate objects
Self-harm can also include less obvious ways of hurting yourself or putting yourself in danger, such as driving recklessly, binge drinking, taking too many drugs, and having unsafe sex.
How does cutting and self-harm help?
It’s important to acknowledge that self-harm helps you—otherwise you wouldn’t do it. Some of the ways cutting and self-harming can help include:
- Expressing feelings you can’t put into words
- Releasing the pain and tension you feel inside
- Helping you feel in control
- Distracting you from overwhelming emotions or difficult life circumstances
- Relieving guilt and punishing yourself
- Making you feel alive, or simply feel something,instead of feeling numb
Once you better understand why you self-harm, you can learn ways to stop self-harming, and find resources that can support you through this struggle.
If self-harm helps, why stop?
Although self-harm and cutting can give you temporary relief, in the long term, it causes far more problems than it solves.
- The relief is short lived, and is quickly followed by other feelings like shame and guilt.
- Keeping the secret of self-harm from friends and family members is difficult and lonely.
- You can hurt yourself badly, even if you don’t mean to. It’s easy to misjudge the depth of a cut or end up with an infected wound.
- If you don’t learn other ways to deal with emotional pain, it puts you at risk for other problems, including major depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.
- Self-harm can become addictive. It may start off as an impulse or something you do to feel more in control, but soon it feels like the cutting or self-harming is controlling you. It often turns into a compulsive behavior that seems impossible to stop.
Self-harm and cutting don’t help you with the issues that made you want to hurt yourself in the first place. There are other ways that the underlying issues that are driving the self harm can be managed.
Help for cutting and self-harm
Confide in someone
If you’re ready to get help for cutting or self-harm, the first step is to confide in another person. It can be scary to talk about the very thing you have worked so hard to hide, but it can also be a huge relief to finally let go of your secret and share what you’re going through.
Tips for talking about cutting and self-harm
- Focus on your feelings. Instead of sharing detailed accounts of your self-harm behavior focus on the feelings or situations that lead to it. This can help the person you’re confiding in better understand where you’re coming from. It also helps to let the person know why you’re telling them.
- Communicate in whatever way you feel most comfortable. If you’re too nervous to talk in person, consider starting off the conversation with an email or letter Don’t feel pressured into sharing things you’re not ready to talk about. You don’t have to show the person your injuries or answer any questions you don’t feel comfortable answering.
- Give the person time to process what you tell them. As difficult as it is for you to open up, it may also be difficult for the person you tell—especially if it’s a close friend or family member. Sometimes, you may not like the way the person reacts. Try to remember that reactions such as shock, anger, and fear come out of concern for you.
Talking about self-harm can bring up a lot of emotions. Don’t be discouraged if the situation feels worse for a short time right after sharing your secret. It’s uncomfortable to confront and change long-standing habits. But once you get past these initial challenges, you’ll start to feel better.
Figure out why you cut
Understanding why you cut or self-harm is a vital first step toward your recovery. If you can figure out what function your self-injury serves, you can learn other ways to get those needs met—which in turn can reduce your desire to hurt yourself.
Identify your self-harm triggers
Remember, self-harm is most often a way of dealing with emotional pain. Once you learn to recognize the feelings that trigger your need to self-injure, you can start developing healthier alternatives.
Get in touch with your feelings
If you’re having a hard time pinpointing the feelings that trigger your urge to cut, you may need to work on your emotional awareness. Emotional awareness means the ability to identify and express what you are feeling from moment to moment and to understand the connection between your feelings and your actions. Feelings are important pieces of information that our bodies give to us, but they do not have to result in actions like cutting or other self-harming.
The idea of paying attention to your feelings—rather than numbing them or releasing them through self-harm—may sound frightening to you. You may be afraid that you’ll get overwhelmed or be stuck with the pain, however emotions quickly come and go if you let them. If you don’t try to fight, judge, or beat yourself up over the feeling, you’ll find that it soon fades, replaced by another emotion. It’s only when you obsess over the feeling that it persists.
Find new coping techniques
Self-harm is your way of dealing with feelings and difficult situations. So if you’re going to stop, you need to have alternative ways of coping in place so you can respond differently when you start to feel like cutting or hurting yourself.
If you cut to express pain and intense emotions
- Paint, draw, or scribble on a big piece of paper with red ink or paint
- Express your feelings in a journal
- Write down any negative feelings and then rip the paper up
- Listen to music that expresses what you’re feeling
If you cut to calm and soothe yourself
- Take a bath or hot shower
- Pet or cuddle with a dog or cat
- Wrap yourself in a warm blanket
- Massage your neck, hands, and feet
- Listen to calming music
If you cut because you feel disconnected and numb
- Call a friend (you don’t have to talk about self-harm)
- Take a cold shower
- Chew something with a very strong taste, like chili peppers or peppermint
If you cut to release tension or vent anger
- Exercise —run, dance, jump rope, or hit a punching bag
- Punch a cushion or mattress or scream into your pillow
- Rip something up (sheets of paper, a magazine)
- Make some noise (play an instrument, bang on pots and pans)
Substitutes for the cutting sensation
- Use a red felt tip pen to mark where you might usually cut
- Rub ice across your skin where you might usually cut
- Put rubber bands on wrists, arms, or legs, and snap them instead of cutting or hitting
Professional treatment for cutting and self-harm
You will probably also need the help and support of a trained professional as you work to overcome the self-harm habit. A therapist can help you develop new coping techniques and strategies to stop self-harming, while also helping you get to the root of why you cut or hurt yourself.
Self harm is an outward expression of inner pain—pain that often has its roots in early life. There is often a connection between self-harm and childhood trauma.
Self-harm may be your way of coping with feelings related to past abuse, flashbacks, negative feelings about your body, or other traumatic memories. This may be the case even if you’re not consciously aware of the connection.