Why do people cut themselves?

People cut themselves to help cope with problems or to deal with emotions. We review the psychology behind self-injury and how to get help here.

minute read

What is self cutting?

Experts estimate that almost 1% of the American population intentionally cuts, injures or hurts themselves regularly or habitually. In fact, cutting yourself can be a form of addiction, especially when the action is impulsive, deliberate and repetitive. The medical terms for this type of action include: self injury, self mutilation, self harm or self abuse. The most common ways that people injure themselves include:

  • breaking bones
  • burning the skin
  • cutting the skin
  • embedding objects under the skin
  • infecting oneself
  • inserting objects in body openings
  • intentional bruising
  • picking scabs or interfering with wound healing
  • pulling hair
  • punching self or objects
  • scratching skin

Why do people cut themselves?

Mainly, people cut themselves as a coping mechanism to events and situations in life. In this way, cutting is much like alcohol or drug abuse – it is a means to “turn off” reality and plug into another way of thinking and feeling to either avoid or cope with life. Although self cutting is one way to cope with or relieve painful or intense feelings, psychological and emotional relief is only temporary. Just like waking up with a hangover, and then starting to drink again, self cutting can grow into a more serious self-destructive cycle without proper treatment.

To summarize, people cut themselves for a number of different reasons. These include:

Boredom – Some people cut themselves because the are under stimulated.

Coping mechanism – Some people cut themselves because cutting brings a sense of relief from intense feelings or helps a person cope with a problem. This is especially true for the nearly 50% of self injurers who report physical and/or sexual abuse during childhood.

Emotional pain – Some people use cutting to stop feeling lonely, angry, or hopeless.

Excitement – Cutting can provide relief and calm for a person feeling over stimulated.

Fear – some people who cut themselves are fearful of intimate relationships and adult responsibilities and cut their skin as a protest to either.

Feeling empty – People also cut themselves because they report feeling empty inside and want to feel something – so they choose pain over nothing at all. This is because holding back strong emotions can cause a person to begin feeling numb. So cutting can be a way to deal with the numbness because it causes you to feel something.

Low self esteem – Some people who cut may feel unloved or not understood by their family or friends and cut themselves as a result of low self-esteem.

Other medical conditions – Many people who cut themselves may also be diagnosed with eating disorders (50-66%), alcohol or substance abuse problems. As a result, cutting becomes an outlet for these other treatable medical conditions.

Peer pressure – Some people may hurt themselves because they want to fit in and be accepted by others who are already cutting.

Relief – Cuting can stimulate feelings of pain that provide a sense of relief from intense feelings. Cutting can also relieve the tension from repressed sadness or anxiety.

Repressed feelings – People who hurt themselves often keep their feelings “bottled up” inside and have a hard time letting their feelings show. Or self-injurers commonly report they feel unable to express their feelings. In fact, up to 90% of self-injurers report that they were discouraged from expressing emotions as children, especially anger and sadness.

Treatment for cutting

If you know someone who is showing signs and symptoms of self-injury and is ready for help, you can consult a mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist with self-injury expertise. S/He can complete an evaluation or assessment and then recommend a course of treatment to prevent the self-destructive cycle from continuing. But just know that help for self cutting is available. Check out this listing of mental health services to find a therapist for self injury now.

Reference sources: What is Self-Harm?
Girls Health [dot] gov
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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