Self-Harm and Cutting – Symptoms and Causes

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If you suspect a loved one is harming themselves or cutting, it’s a serious problem and a serious sign that something is wrong. Self-harm, or the act of hurting yourself intentionally, whether by burning, pinching, biting, cutting, or abrading the skin is often not suicidal. Rather, it’s used as an attempt to control emotions and to detract from what may appear to be greater feelings of loneliness, embarrassment, shame, social isolation, or anger.

While cutting can be indicative of a suicide attempt, it often is not. In fact, non-suicidal self-harm disorder, NSSHD, has its own DSMIV diagnosis. It’s a mental health disorder with its own treatment, its own causes, and its own problems. More importantly, self-harm is often used as a coping mechanism to deal with other problems. Recognizing what is going on, stepping in, and helping your loved one to get treatment is important. That’s especially important considering self-harm and cutting often begins between the ages of 11 and 14, when kids are more likely to be experiencing fluctuating hormones and less likely to have good control over how they do so. Taking steps to get your loved one into treatment, where they can learn healthy coping mechanisms, can mean a world of difference.

“Everyone Does It”

Today’s media shows kids and adults cutting and self-harming. That’s led to an uptick in the number of people engaging in it, not because it’s “cool”, but because they become aware of what urges are directing them to. A study showed that 27% of adolescents and teens will have thoughts of self-harm. 15% of all kids will engage in at least one act of self-harm. However, while 1 in 6 teens engages in acts of self-harm, and to put that into perspective, 1 in 7 students use some form of tobacco product (vapes, hookah, cigarettes, etc.). However, for most teens, the problem never becomes a problem. They self-harm a few times and find better ways to cope.

For a smaller subset, self-harm is the only way to cope, and it becomes a problem, resulting in increased social isolation, increased trauma, bodily scarring and potential mutilation, and increased risk of suicide and death.

Symptoms of Self-Harm and Cutting

Teens and children who self-harm will go out of their way to hide their injuries. They’ll often choose less obvious places on arms and legs. Think the top of the thigh or the shoulder where it would normally be covered by a t-shirt or other garment. In addition, people who start patterns of self-harm are very likely to switch to wearing covering clothing to hide the damage. E.g., if someone starts wearing long sleeves all the time when they didn’t before, someone who starts covering their wrists with jewelry or sport guards when they didn’t’ before, or a sudden refusal to wear short skirts or shorts. Symptoms of self-harm can also include:

  • An increase in the propensity of cuts, bruises, or burns
  • Rubbing the skin to cause a burn
  • A large number of scars, usually small, and usually in one location
  • Patterned scars such as in a crisscross pattern
  • Frequently being involved in accident or injury
  • Bite marks or scratches on the skin
  • Difficulty in interpersonal relationships (e.g., friction with friends or a partner, lack of friends or a partner, isolation, moving to a new school, etc.)
  • Blood on a bed, clothing, or in the trash

People who cut and self-harm are also highly likely to show emotional symptoms. These might be:

  • Impulsivity
  • Unpredictability
  • Emotional instability
  • Mood swings
  • Statements of worthlessness or helplessness

Even if someone isn’t self-harming, the latter list is an indication they would benefit from seeking out professional treatment to learn better coping mechanisms.

How Does Self Injury Occur?

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Most people think of using knives as self-harm. However, there are dozens of ways that children and adults can and do hurt themselves. In many cases, the act of self-harm is about escape, about feeling something other than a negative emotion, or in some cases, about feeling anything at all. Pain, while unpleasant, is often significantly less overwhelming than a flood of negative emotions. In some cases, people may also feel that they deserve to be hurt or they deserve pain, because they have a very low self-image and self-esteem.

  • Cutting using a sharp object such as a knife or a razor
  • Scratching, with the nails or a sharp object
  • Burning (matches, cigarettes, heated objects)
  • Hitting, head banging, punching hard objects,
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects such as nails, needles, or keys
  • Inserting objects under the skin

More insidiously, that self-harm can extend to how people engage in relationships and in social behavior. For example, a teen may spend time with a bully or submit to being hurt by a partner because they don’t think they deserve any better. While less commonly categorized under self-harm, deliberately staying with or around someone who hurts you is a very common aspect of self-harm behavior.

When is Self-Harm a Problem?

If you or a loved one of any age is self-harming, it’s a problem. 1 in 6 people will experiment with self-harm at least once. That’s normal. However, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Self-harm is a coping mechanism that allows people to cope with severe emotions and emotional pain. It’s an outlet from something you’re feeling on the inside. Chances are, if you’re feeling bad enough on the inside that cutting or breaking your skin feels better, you need to seek out emotional and mental support.

Most importantly, treatment will vary considerably depending on the causes of self-harm, your emotional state, and if you have any co-occurring disorders. For example, cutting is a frequent expression of anxiety, depression, borderline, and bipolar disorders. People with autism and ADHD spectrum disorders are also significantly more likely to engage in self-harm. That often relates to social exclusion, inability to connect with peers, and emotions that are difficult or impossible to control. But, it’s important to acknowledge that these are real issues.

People looking for coping mechanisms in self-harm don’t need more trauma and more stress, e.g., by having someone yell at them. They need someone to acknowledge that things are difficult, that emotions and stress are impossible to deal with sometimes, that you need outlets. And, then they need to move into treatment where they can learn better ways to cope with those emotions, better behavior patterns to set themselves up for better emotions, and to build a better basis with which to deal with those emotions in the future. All of that is incredibly difficult and it takes time. Reaching out and asking for professional help is the best place to start. That might involve talking to your doctor or pediatrician. It might involve reaching out directly to a mental health facility and asking for help. Or, it might involve research and learning how to best show that you’re there to support your loved one and you want them to have better coping mechanisms that don’t’ harm them further.

If you or a loved one is struggling, help is there. And, it can help you to get back to normal. If you need help with mental health treatment, drug rehab, or alcohol rehab Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our mental health programs and how we can support your specific requirements as you move into treatment.

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