Whether you’re dealing
with a past trauma or facing overwhelming issues
in everyday life, you may have turned to cutting
yourself or other self-harm as a way to cope
with your problems. Whatever the reason, there
is help—and hope—available. Cutting
and other self-injury may make you feel briefly
like you’re better able to handle life
again, but then the pain returns without any
You can end this dangerous
cycle by learning safer, more healing ways to
deal with your problems. There are professionals
who can provide treatment, and ways you can
help yourself. You have the power to find healthier
ways to manage your pain.
cutting and self-harm
Cutting and self-harm are often
ways to express deep distress and cope with
painful memories. And although you may want
to stop, you may not know how to begin. Understanding
why you self-harm can be 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.
Once you better understand why you self-harm,
you can learn ways to stop self-harming, and
find resources that can support you through
and facts about cutting and self-harm
Because cutting and other means
of self-harm tend to be taboo subjects, the
people around you—and possibly even you—may
harbor serious misconceptions about your motivations
and state of mind.
is a suicidal act.
• Fact: Although people do die from self-harm,
these instances are accidental; in general,
self-harmers do not want to die. In fact, self-injury
may be a way of coping, of regaining control
of pain—in order to go on living.
Myth: People who
self-injure are crazy.
• Fact: Those who self-harm are usually
dealing with trauma, not mental health problems.
There are exceptions, but by and large, you
are probably trying to cope with problems in
the only way you know how.
yourself is a cry for attention.
• Fact: Friends, family, and even healthcare
professionals may think that if you hurt yourself,
you are seeking attention, but the painful truth
is that people who self-harm generally try to
hide what they are doing—rather than draw
attention to it—because they feel ashamed
and your emotions
You may find yourself more
likely to self-harm after an overwhelming or
distressing experience, or series of experiences.
It’s possible that you never learned how
to identify or express difficult feelings in
a healthy way. Understanding your emotions and
how they may make you want to self-harm can
be another important step toward recovery.
Emotional reasons behind
cutting and self-harm
When emotions feel out of hand and you can’t
cope with your pain, you may turn to cutting
yourself or other self-harm. Self-harm may be
strong emotions. If you are experiencing
high stress, self-harm can—temporarily—calm
yourself from emotional pain.
You may feel emotionally “numbed”
by past traumas and need a way to force yourself
into feeling something.
things that cannot be put into words.
Self-harm may be the only way you know how to
display anger or deep sadness.
• Exert a
sense of control over your body.
You may imagine that hurting yourself will prevent
something worse from happening.
or express self-hate. You may
have a childhood history of physical, sexual,
or emotional abuse and erroneously blame yourself
for it. Self-harm can be a way to punish yourself.
You may not know any other means to calm intense
Common emotional traits
Although everyone’s story is unique, if
you cut or self-harm, chances are you have certain
emotional issues in common with other self-harmers.
thinking. You may believe that
your physical wounds prove your emotional pain
is real, or that if you harm yourself, no greater
harm will come to you.
up in a family where emotions weren’t
allowed. You may have been discouraged
from expressions of anger while growing up,
and as a result be unsure what to do with strong
• Other emotional
problems. You may have co-existing
problems with obsessive-compulsive disorder,
substance abuse, depression, or an eating disorder—all
conditions primarily about control.
support. You may have a limited
social support network, perhaps due to family
breakdown or shame about your self-harm.
In Your Own Words
It can be difficult to understand the motivations
behind cutting and self-harm, even when it’s
your own. But a clearer picture may develop
when you hear the common explanations people
give for self-injury:
• “It expresses
emotional pain or feelings that
I’m unable to put into words. It puts
a punctuation mark on what I’m feeling
on the inside!”
• “It’s a
way to have control
over my body because I can’t
control anything else in my life.”
• “I usually feel
like I have a black hole in the pit of my stomach,
at least if I feel pain it’s
better than feeling nothing.”
• “I feel relieved
and less anxious after I cut.
The emotional pain slowly slips away into the
and symptoms of self-injury
Because clothing can hide physical
injuries, and inner turmoil can be covered up
by a seemingly calm disposition, self-injury
can be hard to detect. Due to deep shame and
guilt, self-harmers often go to great lengths
to keep their injuries a secret. As a family
member or friend, it may be up to you to be
on the lookout for the warning signs of self-harm—and
to talk to the person about getting help. Red
flags for cutting or self-injury include
wounds. A self-harmer may have
fresh or scars from cuts, bruises, or cigarette
burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs or
of depression. Low mood, tearfulness,
lack of motivation, or loss of energy can be
signs of depression, which may lead to self-injury.
who self-harms may claim to be clumsy or have
many mishaps, in order to explain away injuries.
in eating habits. This could mean
being secretive about eating, or unusual weight
loss or gain, as eating disorders are often
associated with self-harm.
up. A person who self-injures
may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants,
even in hot weather.
help for cutting and self-harm: The road to
It may seem like it's impossible
to get out of the cycle of self-harming, but
there are ways you can help yourself stop. The
road to recovery may be bumpy, but with self-reflection
and help from a friend or professional, you
can reach a healthier destination.
The first step: Deciding
For many people that self-harm, recovery begins
with the decision that you want your life to
• Ask yourself
why you want to stop. Examine
your motivation for quitting self-injury; this
way, you will be able to remember why you stopped
as you go through the healing process.
when you will stop. Setting a
time to quit self-injury can help you mentally
prepare for the change; be realistic and reflective
about this start date.
The second step: Confiding
It can be scary to talk about the very thing
you have kept hidden, but opening up to someone
you trust is an important step toward recovery.
• Find the
right person to tell. Deciding
whom you can trust with such personal information
can be difficult. Try finding someone who isn’t
going to gossip or take control of your recovery,
and someone with whom you feel at ease.
• Just say
it. Instead of putting off the
conversation because it’s not the “right
time,” pull your trusted confidant aside
or use the phone—and go ahead and tell
them what’s going on.
• Set boundaries.
You don’t have to show the person your
injuries, or answer any questions you don’t
feel comfortable answering.
you can do to help yourself
the problem. You are probably
hurting on the inside and need help to stop
this addictive behavior.
- Talk to someone
you trust. This could be a friend,
teacher, religious leader, counselor, or relative.
- Identify your
self-harm triggers. Ask for
help in developing ways to either avoid or
address those triggers.
- Recognize that
self-injury is an attempt to self-soothe.
Learn how to develop better ways to calm and
- Figure out what
function the self-injury is serving.
Replace self-harm with expressing anger, sadness,
and fear in healthy ways.
tips for cutters and self-injurers
You can help yourself stop
cutting and self-injury, both in the short and
long term. The two primary ways to help yourself
quit are talking to someone you trust, and finding
other means for coping with pain. How you decide
to help yourself stop cutting or self-harming
will depend entirely on what you feel most comfortable
with, and what works for you. You may need to
try out more than one method on your road to
recovery, but you do have the power to find
a healthier alternative.
What to do when you
feel like cutting yourself or self-harming
Finding an alternative to self-injury goes hand-in-hand
with why you self-injure in the first place.
The following are reasons you may self-harm
and things to do instead of hurting yourself.
• Deal with
anger. Try running, dancing fast,
screaming, punching a pillow, throwing something,
or ripping something apart.
• Cope with
emotional numbness. Squeeze ice
cubes, hold a package of frozen food, take a
very cold shower, or chew something with a very
strong taste, like chili peppers, raw ginger
root, or a grapefruit peel.
• Calm yourself.
Take a bubble bath, do deep breathing, write
in a journal, draw, or practice yoga.
• See “blood.”
You can draw a red ink line where you would
usually cut yourself, in addition to the other
Learning new ways to
cope with stress and emotional pain
For long-term recovery, you will need to learn
how to recognize your feelings and manage them
your feelings. As emotions wash
over you, begin to identify them. Understanding
your feelings can put you in better control
your emotions. You may be used
to holding your feelings in. Now is the time
to find a friend, a diary, or try exercising
in order to get your emotions out and prevent
and change your thinking. Ask
yourself why you are feeling a certain way,
and try thinking positively. Visualize yourself
feeling happier and more relaxed.
behaviors. You can try distracting
yourself from self-injury with the alternative
methods listed in the previous section. Learn
what works for you, and begin making healthier
behaviors part of your everyday life.
a friend or family member who cuts or self-injures
It’s very difficult to
come to terms with the fact that someone you
care about is cutting or self-harming. You may
feel shocked, confused, or even disgusted by
self-harming behaviors—and guilty about
admitting these feelings. But acknowledging
your discomfort to yourself is actually an important
first step toward helping your loved one. And
once you recognize how you feel, a big part
of getting beyond any distaste or revulsion
about self-harm is to learn about it. Understanding
why your friend or family member is self-injuring
can help you see the world from his or her eyes,
giving you an important new perspective—and
making you more mentally prepared to help.
Helpful tips in dealing
with someone who self-injures
It is vital to understand that self-harming
behavior is an attempt to maintain a certain
amount of control which in and of itself is
a way of self-soothing.
Let the person know that you care and are available
to listen—and then be available.
Encourage expressions of emotions, including
• Spend time.
Spend time doing enjoyable activities together.
• Find resources.
Help your friend or family member find a therapist
or support group. If you don’t know how
to find help, encourage your loved one to talk
to someone who might be able to help, such as
a teacher, a school counselor, or your minister.
judge. Avoid judgmental comments
or telling the person to stop the self-harming
and change. If the self-harmer
is a family member, especially if it is your
child, prepare yourself to address the difficulties
in your family. This is not about blame, but
rather about learning new ways of dealing with
family interactions and communications that
can help the entire family.
treatment for cutting and self-harm
You may need additional support
to stop cutting yourself or self-harming, but
seeking this help can be a confusing and intimidating
process, especially under emotional distress.
Understanding when to seek professional treatment,
who to see, and how it will work can help you
get beyond your fear or indecision in order
to get the help you need.
• When to
get help. Although anyone who
self-injures can benefit from the help of a
professional, it is especially important to
seek help if your own work to stop isn’t
helping your behavior. Professional treatment
is most likely to work if the person who self-harms
is the one who makes the decision to seek it.
treatment. The normal course of
treatment for self-harm is talk therapy, in
which you see trained therapist who can help
you get to the root of why you self-harm. Other
types of treatment for self-injury include cognitive-behavioral
therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and
hypnosis. Once you choose a therapist, you can
work with that person to find the treatment
that is right for your individual case.
• Who to
see. You can choose a social worker,
trauma therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist,
but be sure that he or she is trained in dealing
with self-injury. This therapist should be someone
who accepts self-harm without condoning it,
and who is willing to help you work toward stopping
it at your own pace. You should feel at ease
with him or her, even while talking through
your most personal issues.