Cutting and Self-Harm

Signs, Causes & Treatments

Are you concerned that a friend or family member may be cutting or engaging in self-harm? Or have you done so? Understanding the signs and causes of self-harm can help you step in and take action.

When you’re able to make an informed assessment, you can find the right treatment. It’s critical to stop self-harm before it escalates to a severe level. Keep reading to learn about the signs, causes, and treatments associated with self-harm.

What Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is the act of inflicting intentional damage to one’s body. The severity can range from minor to extreme. It’s often an indication of another mental health issue — and it may be a cry for help.

Inflicting Injuries

Individuals who self-injure tend to do so on the wrists, hands, or stomach. They may use a razor, candle, knife, or another sharp object to do this. In other instances, individuals will lunge at walls or objects to bruise themselves.

Once there is an injury, some individuals will continue to agitate the area. As a result, the wound may never heal.

Reckless Behavior

Self-harm can include other forms of reckless behavior. These can include driving at high rates of speed or engaging in unsafe sex. Some individuals may start spending time with others interested in risky behavior, too.

Abusing Substances

Taking drugs and abusing alcohol represent other forms of self-harm. And when someone is under the influence of drugs, they may be more likely to cut or burn themselves.


Perspectives differ on the link between self-harm and suicide. But most experts see self-harm as an approach to dealing with emotional pain that is distinct from suicide. In other words, self-harm is not necessarily a botched suicide attempt.

Studies show that almost 1 in 12 teens has engaged in self-harm. And more often, the teens are girls. Knowing what the teens in your life are going through is key to helping address this problem.

Reasons for Self-Harm

The causes of self-harm vary and each case is different. Though not a mental disorder, self-harm could be connected to forms of mental illness. Most often, self-harm is an emotional outlet for the individual doing it.

Dealing with Emotional Distress

Individuals who self-harm struggle to cope with difficult situations. They may find it too challenging to handle strong emotional shifts. As a result, they turn to self-harm as a distraction.

Inability to Communicate Emotions

Some individuals struggle to articulate how they are feeling. Talking or writing may not be their first instinct. In response, cutting becomes a physical manifestation of what they’re feeling inside.

Finding a Way to Handle Tension

For someone unable to shake a feeling of stress, self-harm can be a way to exert control. It disrupts a tense situation and provides a release. Issues like social pressures, relationship problems, or job stress can lead to self-harm.

Enacting Punishment

On the other hand, self-harm can serve as a form of self-punishment for some individuals. This may happen if a person feels insecure about a situation or their appearance. The act of cutting is a way to enact punishment for not measuring up.

Creating a Sensation

An individual may feel depressed or numb to the world around them. And self-harm can help stimulate a reaction.

The act of cutting produces a physical response that may be lacking from a person’s life. Even though the sensation is temporary, it may be the only strong response someone is able to feel.

Risk Factors

What puts someone at a greater risk of self-harm? From family history to bullying, a variety of factors can elevate someone’s risk. Consider your loved one’s background as you assess the situation.

Being Part of a Friend Circle Engaged in Self-Harm

Friend circles can provide a source of encouragement — even for self-injury. Does your teen or friend tend to spend time with other troubled individuals? They may be modeling their behavior after what they're witnessing.

Having a History of Abuse

Anyone who goes through childhood abuse, assault, or trauma is at an elevated risk. Memories of these difficult experiences can trigger extreme reactions, including self-harm.

Feelings of Low Self-Esteem

Is your teen spending a lot of time on social media? Social media platforms can be a great way to exchange information. But they can be damaging to self-esteem, too.

Your loved one may be struggling with body image issues if they don't think their pictures measure up. Or they could be a victim of cyberbullying. As a result, they may be turning to self-harm.

Problems at School

For children and teens, school-related problems can trigger an impulse to self-harm. The problem could be that a student is drowning under academic pressures.

In other instances, a student may be dealing with the fallout of not fitting in. They may feel pressure to be popular or make the right sports team. The burden of needing to look a certain way could feel like too much to handle.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Individuals with alcohol or drug addictions could turn to self-harm as a stimulant. Impaired judgment may lead them to see cutting as a viable choice. If you smell alcohol or notice physical changes in your loved one, they may be abusing a drug. It's critical to help them find treatment before their decisions hurt themselves or someone else.

Signs of Self-Harm

If you suspect that someone you love is engaging in self-harm, there are tell-tale signs to look out for. You may notice behavioral changes. Or you may notice visible indications of self-injury.

Visual Indications of Injuries

An obvious clue that someone is engaging in self-harm is a wound, piercing, or cut. In more severe cases, someone may even break a bone. You’ll notice bruising or punctured skin at the site of the self-injury.

Some individuals may even carve initials or other symbols into their skin. And in other instances, they may insert items beneath the skin.

Burns and Head Trauma

Indications of self-harm move beyond cutting. You may notice burns on someone’s skin as a result of self-harm. Individuals may use cigarettes, matches, or hot pans to create burns.

Some individuals may choose to hit their head or punch themself as a form of self-harm. Signs of self-harm may take the form of bruises on the face.

Visible Scars

When you look at your friend or family member, do you notice scars? If you see layers of scars in one area, that could be a sign of self-harm. This is particularly true of the wrists, hands, and thighs.

More recent scars will be darker and more obvious. And these scars may be the result of biting, scratching or using a sharp object. Stay vigilant and look for clues that someone has an ongoing problem.

Presence of Sharp Objects

Many individuals will use knives or razor blades to self-harm. Look for the sudden appearance of utility knives or other sharp objects. They may show up in a person’s living space, purse, or wardrobe.

Other Indications That Something Is Wrong

Indications of self-harm may show up in the decisions your loved one makes. Pay attention to noticeable changes in their behavior, manner of dress, and conversations.

Distanced Relationships

Not all indications of self-harm come in the form of physical injury. You may notice that someone you love is no longer keeping up a close connection. They may be missing family gatherings or skipping coffee dates.

People who self-harm may fear someone finding out about their actions. And this will cause them to keep their distance.

Behavioral Changes

One of the biggest signs of self-harm is an abrupt behavior change. For instance, individuals may try to keep their self-harm a secret. As a result, they may become more reclusive and withdrawn.

Impulsive behavior is common, too. You may notice your loved one neglecting responsibilities. Or they may be staying out late and falling out of healthier sleep habits.

Protective Wardrobe Choices

Individuals who self-harm may try to conceal their scars through conscious wardrobe changes. Seeing a loved one wearing bulky clothing or long sleeves in the middle of summer is a red flag.

Injury Excuses

It is common for people who self-harm to feel anxious or ashamed of what they’re doing. To compensate, they may try to make excuses for visible signs of injury.

If you notice a fresh wound, bruise, or scar on an individual, ask about it. But be prepared for an excuse. There’s a good chance they may blame clumsiness or some other reason for the injury.

Avoiding Social Situations

You may notice a loved one retreating from social situations. They may be skipping parties, picnics, or meetings.

This could be an indication that they feel social anxiety. Alternatively, it could mean they are trying to conceal scars.

Dangers of Regular Self-Harm

If self-harm goes untreated, it can lead to bigger problems. You don’t want to see your loved one in a position where self-harm is their only means of communication.

Addiction to Self-Harm

Self-harm can provide an emotional release for some individuals. And in that way, it can become an addictive drug. What starts out as a sudden decision can become a compulsive habit.

Unintentional Serious Injuries

Even if an individual’s goal is not to take their life or cause serious injury, something can go wrong. A simple scrape or cut can turn into a life-threatening wound. And without medical treatment, self-harm can become deadly.

Those who engage in risky behavior, risky driving, or drug abuse can jeopardize their lives. This behavior also can jeopardize the lives of others on the road.

Self-Harm Does Not Solve a Problem

Ultimately, self-harm provides an immediate release — but it does not provide a long-term solution. Self-harm indicates an individual’s inability to deal with emotional stress, grief, or inadequacy. It is healthier to find a trusted friend for support, take up a hobby, or focus on mental wellbeing.

In many instances, self-harm may result from other mental health issues. If your loved one has to manage other emotional problems, they may be turning to cutting as an outlet.


Individuals with depression experience deep sadness, apathy, or negative feelings. It’s normal for anyone to feel sad at times. But persistent sadness and negativity are a sign of a more serious problem.

People with depression may feel tired, struggle to concentrate or seem restless. And many times, they are not able to pinpoint why they feel this way. In these moments of hopelessness, self-harm may become a coping mechanism.

Mental health professionals can provide counseling that can help people with depression. Additionally, some antidepressant medications can work to alleviate symptoms. Individuals may need to try various kinds before arriving at the right one.

Bipolar Disorder

Individuals with bipolar disorder are prone to severe mood swings that can last for days, weeks, or months. At times, someone may feel a deep sense of hopelessness or apathy. At other times, someone could feel joyful or irritable.

While the exact cause of this condition is not known, one’s brain chemistry and genetics are contributing factors. Treatments for bipolar disorder include regular counseling and medication. Joining a support group or turning to family therapy may be helpful, as well.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia, may compel someone toward self-harm. Eating disorders indicate that someone struggles with body image issues. A person may go to extreme lengths to avoid eating — or punish themselves for binging.

There are key physical signs to look out for. Significant weight loss, mood swings, hair loss, and irritability are all signs of an eating disorder. Changes in eating habits or an effort to avoid communal meals may indicate an eating disorder, as well.

How to Help

When you see signs of self-harm, it’s your cue to offer help. Addressing a difficult issue requires that you have a plan and resources. After all, the topic of self-harm may be just the start of an emotional outpouring.

Be Patient

If you are broaching a sensitive topic like self-harm, it’s critical to move slowly. You may encounter resistance initially. And it may take several attempts — or the passage of time — before someone opens up.

You may encounter reactions that show anger, resentment, or denial. Assure the individual that you have their best interests at heart. Let them know that you’re available to talk when they’re ready.

Avoid Being Judgemental

If an individual feels like they’re under a microscope, you could make the situation worse. You don’t want to suggest that you’re judging them for their behavior.

Avoid yelling or raising your voice. And stay away from criticism. Instead, be supportive to keep the lines of communication open.

Offer to Be Present

Someone who self-harms may feel like they don’t have any friends. One of the best gestures you can make is to offer your friendship. Even if it seems obvious to you that you’re a loyal friend, your loved one may be blinded by emotional distress.

Suggest Seeking Professional Help

Far too often, seeking professional help comes with a stigma. In addition, it takes a lot of courage for someone to admit they have a self-harm problem. There’s a good chance your loved one will need some encouragement.

You can help your loved one by offering to accompany them to a doctor or therapist’s office. Without being too aggressive, follow up and ask how the sessions are going.

Finding Healthier Alternatives to Self-Harm

Turning to a creative outlet or mindfulness practice is a good step, as well. Taking up a new hobby may provide a needed distraction or emotional outlet for someone who self-harms.

Encourage a Creative Outlet

Finding a creative outlet is one way to avoid cutting. Encourage your loved one to try ceramics, painting, or drawing. They can get lost in the process or enjoy the sense of focus needed to create a beautiful image.

With a paintbrush or drawing pad, they can channel their emotions into a more productive and healthy activity. By doing this, they may gain the sense of purpose necessary to break the habit of cutting.

Start Journaling

Writing down feelings is an excellent way to work through them. Establishing a practice of journaling is a useful tool for someone with urges to self-harm.

You may want to offer your loved one a journal and suggest that they write a new entry each day. Smaller journals are convenient to pack in a purse or book bag, too, for someone who needs an immediate distraction.

Tackle Stress with Meditation

Meditation can provide a much-needed sense of calm and focus. For someone prone to self-harm, it is an opposite and healthier way to cope. It helps a person minimize negative reactions and develop new perspectives.

Anyone can practice meditation at home, and it only requires setting aside around 15 minutes each day. Encourage your loved one to build this calming practice into their daily routine.

Try Yoga

As another option, practicing yoga is a good way to develop mindfulness. Deep, slow, and intentional breathing can act as a calming force. As a bonus, the practice will build physical strength that may empower someone.

Offer to sign up your loved one for a yoga class. You may also wish to accompany them as a show of support.

Treatment Processes

Treatment processes for self-injury will depend on each person’s situation. Ultimately, it’s most important to seek out thorough and compassionate medical professionals.

Talk with a Doctor

A doctor may assess an individual for evidence of injuries or open wounds. Then they will talk with the individual about the emotional challenges that could provoke self-harm.

A doctor will want to know about the duration of the cutting. They may prescribe a mood stabilizer if it helps the individual handle their emotional issues. Hospitalizing an individual can provide a temporary safe space, but it won’t help conquer the emotional issues.

Work with a Therapist

Another key step in treatment is for the individual to meet with a therapist. Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) can help individuals see and conquer their emotional distress.

A good therapist will be able to talk through the sources of emotional pain. They will have strategies to help your loved one find new coping mechanisms. And meetings can occur in-person or online.

Address the Underlying Problems

Another key step in treatment is for the individual toaTreating self-harm means addressing the emotional or social issues that cause the problem. Building self-respect is important, especially for teens or young adults who might not have strong role models.

Individuals who self-harm must learn to identify triggering situations. These are instances that provoke their need to cause self-injury.

They should have a go-to activity, such as journaling, to help them work through their emotions. It may be helpful to have a trusted friend’s or therapist’s phone number handy for emergencies.

Stay Away from Drugs and Alcohol

People who struggle with self-harm should avoid ingesting drugs or alcohol. These may impair their judgment. They should only take those drugs prescribed by a doctor.

Additionally, they should develop regular eating and sleep habits. Developing a routine and understanding triggers are critical steps toward building a healthier lifestyle.

Understand How to Approach Self-Harm

If you understand the causes and signs of self-harm, you’ll put yourself in a situation where you can help. When you notice someone you care about withdrawing or acting out, it’s time to step in.

Approach them with compassion and patience. Enlist professional assistance, as needed, to help them develop healthier habits. And if you self-harm, reach out to a trusted friend for help.

It’s essential to stop self-harm before it becomes a bigger problem. To give your loved one the care they need, contact us and we can help.


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