Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injuy Help, Support and Treatment


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 permanent recovery.

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.

Understanding 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 this struggle.

Myths 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.

Myth: Self-harm 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.

Myth: Injuring 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 afraid.

Self-harm 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 how you:

Regulate strong emotions. If you are experiencing high stress, self-harm can—temporarily—calm your nerves.

Distract yourself from emotional pain. You may feel emotionally “numbed” by past traumas and need a way to force yourself into feeling something.

Express 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.

Self-punish 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.

Self-soothe. You may not know any other means to calm intense emotions.

Common emotional traits of self-injurers
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.

Magical 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.

Growing 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 feelings.

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.

Limited 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 physical pain.”

Signs 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

Unexplained wounds. A self-harmer may have fresh or scars from cuts, bruises, or cigarette burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs or chest.

Indications of depression. Low mood, tearfulness, lack of motivation, or loss of energy can be signs of depression, which may lead to self-injury.

Frequent “accidents.” Someone who self-harms may claim to be clumsy or have many mishaps, in order to explain away injuries.

Changes 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.

Covering up. A person who self-injures may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.

Getting help for cutting and self-harm: The road to recovery

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 to stop
For many people that self-harm, recovery begins with the decision that you want your life to change.

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.

Decide 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 in someone
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.

What you can do to help yourself

  • Acknowledge 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 self-soothe.
  • Figure out what function the self-injury is serving. Replace self-harm with expressing anger, sadness, and fear in healthy ways.

Self-help 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 suggestions above.

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 without self-injury.

Recognize your feelings. As emotions wash over you, begin to identify them. Understanding your feelings can put you in better control of them.

• Express 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 self-injury.

Challenge and change your thinking. Ask yourself why you are feeling a certain way, and try thinking positively. Visualize yourself feeling happier and more relaxed.

Change 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.

Helping 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

Understand. 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.

Reassure. Let the person know that you care and are available to listen—and then be available.

Encourage. Encourage expressions of emotions, including anger.

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.

Don’t judge. Avoid judgmental comments or telling the person to stop the self-harming behavior.

Examine 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.

Professional 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.

Professional 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.