Today, people stand proudly against being fat-shamed or slut-shamed, but it’s harder to find someone who will stand up and disclose their own cutting or other self-injury. Self-harm is one of the last things people feel ashamed of, despite it being far more widespread than you might suspect.
Cutting and self-harm can be a way of coping with problems. It may help you express feelings you can’t put into words, distract you from your life, or release emotional pain. Afterward, you probably feel better—at least for a little while. But then the painful feelings return, and you feel the urge to hurt yourself again. If you want to stop cutting or self-harming but don’t know how, remember this: you deserve to feel better, and you can get there without hurting yourself.
What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is a way of expressing and dealing with deep distress and emotional pain. It 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.
Regardless of how you self-harm, injuring yourself is often the only way you know how to:
- Cope with feelings like sadness, self-loathing, emptiness, guilt, and rage
- Express feelings you can’t put into words or release the pain and tension you feel inside
- Feel in control, relieve guilt, or punish yourself
- Distract yourself from overwhelming emotions or difficult life circumstances
- Make you feel alive, or simply feel something, instead of feeling numb
But it’s important to know that there is help available if you want to stop. You can learn other ways to cope with everything that’s going on inside without having to hurt yourself.
The technical term for cutting is non-suicidal self-injury, and it’s defined as the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue. But keep in mind two important facts: first, cutters aren’t trying to kill themselves. By contrast, they often self-harm to feel alive rather than numb. Second, it’s“for purposes not socially sanctioned.” So, no matter how you feel about your daughter’s nose or belly button piercing, it doesn’t count as self-harm. But cutting, burning, carving words or symbols into one’s skin, painful hair-pulling, or literally banging one’s head against the wall certainly do count.
So what’s going on? To an outsider, self-harm may seem incomprehensible, even crazy, but if you go with the truism that each person copes as best as they can with the resources they have at the time, it might be a little easier to understand. With that, here are four reasons individuals self-injure:
Reason #1: Physical pain takes away emotional pain:- The physical pain of cutting not only diffuses negative emotion, but it also creates a sense of calm and relief. Because it works almost instantly, cutting is highly reinforcing—some even say addictive. Individuals who cut describe the sensation as an escape or a release of pressure, similar to how people suffering from bulimia describe purging.
Eventually, the brain starts to connect the relief from emotional pain with cutting. This creates a strong association, or even a craving, that can be difficult to resist. And while most people who self-injure do so for two to four years, there are many who continue on well beyond that time frame. The frequency of self-injury also varies; some do it daily, while others can go weeks, months, or even years between episodes.
Reason #2: People who cut are their own harshest critics:- A study asked college students who cut themselves, plus a control group of non-cutters, to keep a daily diary of their emotions for two weeks. The biggest difference between those who cut and those who didn’t? People who cut reported feeling dissatisfied with themselves much more often than non-cutters. This dissatisfaction manifested as harsh self-criticism. Indeed, anyone who self-injurers is really hard on themselves, and they sometimes carve their criticisms into their skin: “fat,” “stupid,” “failure.” Interestingly, a study showed that harsh self-criticism is most strongly related to self-harm, rather than other, more indirect forms of self-injury, like eating disorders, drinking or drug abuse.
Reason #3: Cutting can be a way to stop feeling numb:- In particular, individuals with a trauma history may self-harm to take control of their own pain, and feel something other than numbness.
Reason #4: It’s an alternative outlet for emotional pain. Kids raised in a household where sadness, hurt, or disappointment gets invalidated or mocked start to believe that it’s not okay to feel bad. They turn to cut as an “acceptable” way to feel pain—if they’re not allowed to feel it emotionally, they’ll let it out physically.
In short, think of cutting and self-harm as any other unhealthy coping mechanism like getting drunk, binge eating, or getting high; it’s a way to feel something other than what you’re feeling, or it can be a way to punish yourself for not measuring up.
It goes without saying that cutting is dangerous. Even when suicide isn’t the intention, it’s all too easy to cut too deeply. In fact, individuals who cut know it’s unhealthy– they go to great lengths to hide their behavior, not to mention their scars.
How to Prevent Self-Harm:-
In a study, researchers asked people who formerly cut themselves why they stopped. There were many answers, but there were three big ones. First, almost 40 percent said that they stopped cutting when they came to realize that they could handle feeling crappy for a while and that they would probably feel better soon. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) stopped because they felt someone loved or cared for them—they may have entered a loving relationship or their friends made them feel worthy and cared for. And a full 27 percent said they simply grew out of it.
But if those things don’t come into your life, what are some concrete methods to stop?
First, it’s important to match the solution with the reason for cutting. If cutting is a way to feel deep dark emotions, experiment with ways to feel those emotions safely: listen to music that matches how you feel, have a good cry, or write out your thoughts in a journal, even if you just write page after page of profanity in big black letters. If cutting is a way to release tension, move your body—visit a boxing gym or go for a long, pounding run.
If channeling your pain into another activity doesn’t work, simulating cutting might help. It won’t be as satisfying, but it’s safer. Squeeze ice until your hands hurt or draw on your skin with a red marker instead of cutting it.
Finally, you can try to wait it out. It will be excruciating, especially at first, but the urge to cut will eventually pass. Promise yourself (or someone who loves you) that you’ll put at least 10 or 20 minutes, or however long you agree on, between the urge to cut and actually doing it.
Cutting can be notoriously difficult to stop on your own. If you’re struggling with self-injury, do the strong thing and reach out to a mental health professional for support, help, and accountability. No one should suffer such emotional pain they feel the need to self-injure; a good therapist can help you get back on track.
To wrap up, cutting can be a hard habit to break—that harsh inner critic is a voice not easily silenced. It will take time and courage, but know that that inner critic can slowly be edged out by something you didn’t even know you had: inner strength.