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Cutting and Self-Injury

This entry may be triggering or difficult to read for some people.

Self-injury behavior is something that is more common than many people realize. (In one study by researchers at Brown University of high school students, 46 percent had injured themselves in the past year on multiple occasions.) It is often misunderstood, not just by the lay public, but also by the mental health professionals who ostensibly should know what self-injury it is and how best to treat it.

Self-injury is used by people as over-drinking is used by others — to drown out emotional pain with something else. In the case of self-injury, that something else is physical pain. It focuses your attention and takes your mind off of your emotional pain, if only for a little while.

Cutting is the most common form of self-injury — making skin-deep cuts on one’s arms, wrists, or less noticeable areas on one’s body. The cuts are not meant to cause permanent damage or harm, nor are they meant as a suicidal gesture. The cuts are the means to an end themselves — they provide a source of immediate but non-serious physical pain (as long as they are allowed to heal cleanly). Other forms of self-injury include burning, or keeping old wounds open or inviting infection in them to keep them painful.

The people with the most severe self-injury behavior often can think of little else as they go through their day — it becomes something more than just a way to deal with emotional pain, it becomes its own obsession, as it did with Becki, a person who self-injured and is profiled in an article that appeared online in Newsweek last week:

Becki describes it as an obsessive battle, and one she often lost. At her worst, she says she spent every hour living and breathing self-injury. She dreamed about it. She’d think about it at school. She bought every book published on it. She searched for self-injury Websites, and compiled what she found into a 13-page Website of her own. “I was cutting 10-plus times a day, and still, if I didn’t do it, I would feel like I was missing something,” she says.

Newsweek‘s article is a fairly good read on self-injury and self-harm, describing what self-injury is, using Becki as a case study, and brings us up-to-date on treatment options and the latest research into self-injury. If nothing else, it helps bring this behavior out into the open more, helping people understand that it is not something that one should be ashamed of and that it can be treated.

As the article notes, self-injury isn’t recognized as a mental disorder by itself. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be treated. Treatment usually is done through psychotherapy, and focuses on helping the person identify their own triggers for self-injurious behavior, and find alternative methods for helping them deal with the emotional pain in their life.

Read the full article: Why She Cuts

Cutting and Self-Injury

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Cutting and Self-Injury. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 5 Jan 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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