Self-Injury (Cutting)

What is Self-Injury (Cutting)?

Self-injury is a repeated behavior in which a person intentionally causes themselves bodily harm or energy. Self-injury is often termed non-suicidal self-injury to distinguish it from the type of self-injury that stems from a desire to take one’s own life. Also referred to as self-harm and self-mutilation, self-injury can be attempted by a variety of means.

Oftentimes, cutting is used interchangeably with self-injury. However, cutting is the act of injuring oneself with a sharp object and is a form of self-injury. Self-injury and cutting are often considered to be symptomatic of a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety. It is also most often associated with young adults and teenagers, though any person of any age can suffer from self-injurious behavior.

There are numerous conditions that can lead a person to develop self-injury habits and behaviors. Eating disorders are commonly associated with this behavior. Other psychiatric conditions that may be a cause include post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and an anxiety disorder.

What are the Symptoms of Self-Injury (Cutting)?

Signs and symptoms of self-injury include scarring, particularly on the wrists and arms as well as frequent fresh cuts, scratches, burns, bruises, or other minor injuries. People who are engaged in cutting or self-injury may keep sharp objects on hand or other items that can cause injury.

They may also be seen frequently rubbing their skin or picking at sores. Additional signs and symptoms can include always wearing long sleeves and pants even when it is not weather-appropriate, impulsiveness or unpredictability, trouble maintaining interpersonal relationships, low self-esteem, and trouble at work or school.

Self-Injury Causes

There is no single underlying cause of self-injury (cutting). In fact, there is a myriad of reasons which may prompt an individual to self-injure or cut. However, nonsuicidal self-injury is most often a method of emotional regulation and maintenance when a person has difficulty experiencing or processing their emotions.

Negative feelings such as loneliness and anxiety are typically behind the urge to cut. In some instances, it is a person’s numbness or inability to superficially feel which may be behind their desire to cut. Occasionally the physical pain of cutting reflects the emotional pain within. At other times, the person is trying to externally communicate their depression or negative emotions and signal for help.

The most common age at which one self-injures is during adolescence. Due to the volatility and turbulence of one’s teenage years, the inability to cope with difficult emotions, and a lack of steady friends, young adults seek to relieve the pain they feel within. Similarly, life challenges and mental health issues may drive someone to cut. Peer groups which cut or injure themselves may influence a teenager’s likelihood to participate in the activity in order to achieve acceptance. Additionally, alcohol and drug use prove a serious risk factor. Cutting is generally used by teens to self-soothe.

How is Self-Injury (Cutting) Treated?

The treatment for self-injury focuses on getting a person to stop injuring themselves. This is often contingent upon treating the condition that underlies the self-injurious behavior. Self-injury and cutting are often treated through mental health therapy and other treatments. This can be accomplished with inpatient/residential, outpatient, or partial-inpatient treatment. Therapy works on dealing with underlying issues, modifying behaviors, and building interpersonal relationships. Depending on the condition that underlies self-injury, psychiatric medications may also help a person to overcome the condition.

Self-Injury Prevention

Prevention usually comes in the form of self-management, and emotional and mental help. Treatment plans and therapy to improve mental health will often help someone to avoid returning to self-injurious behavior. Being aware of potential triggers can reduce greatly one’s likelihood of cutting. Asking for help when one feels like cutting is a proactive and positive way to eliminate the urge to harm oneself. For adolescents, it can be helpful to teach and encourage them to reach out by providing them with the necessary tools in order to cope with emotions in a healthy manner.

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Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
November 07, 2017