- Studies show that almost one in five people have cut or otherwise deliberately injured themselves in their lifetime.
- Cutting often begins during the teenage years—on average, between the ages of 12 and 14.
- One reason some people cut themselves is that they associate cutting with relief from emotional pain.
- If cutting is a way to feel deep dark emotions, one can experiment with ways to feel those emotions safely, such as by journaling.
Today, people stand proudly against being fat-shamed or slut-shamed, but it’s harder to find someone who will stand up and disclose their own cutting or other self-injury. Self-harm is one of the last things people feel ashamed of—despite it being far more widespread than you might suspect.
A 2012 review of 52 self-injury studies from around the world found that approximately 18 percent of individuals had cut or otherwise deliberately injured themselves in their lifetime. That’s almost one in five.
Cutting often begins during the teenage years—on average, between the ages of 12 and 14. It’s surprisingly common during this period in particular: Studies show that between 13 and 23 percent of teenagers have cut, burned, or otherwise deliberately injured themselves.
The technical term for cutting is non-suicidal self-injury, and it’s defined as the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue. But keep in mind two important facts: First, cutters aren’t trying to kill themselves. By contrast, they often self-harm to feel alive, rather than numb. Second, self-injury must, by definition, be “for purposes not socially sanctioned.” So, no matter how you feel about your daughter’s nose or belly button piercing, it doesn’t count as self-harm. But cutting, burning, carving words or symbols into one’s skin, painful hair-pulling, or literally banging one’s head against the wall certainly do count.
So what’s going on? To an outsider, self-harm may seem incomprehensible—even crazy—but if you go with the truism that each person copes as best as they can with the resources they have at the time, it might be a little easier to understand. With that, here are four reasons individuals self-injure:
Reason #1: Physical pain can take away emotional pain. The physical pain of cutting not only diffuses negative emotion, but it can also create a sense of calm and relief. Because it works almost instantly, cutting is highly reinforcing—some even say addictive. Individuals who cut describe the sensation as an escape or a release of pressure, similar to how people suffering from bulimia describe purging.
Eventually, the brain starts to connect the relief from emotional pain with cutting. This creates a strong association, or even a craving, that can be difficult to resist. And while most people who self-injure do so for two to four years, there are many who continue on well beyond that time frame. The frequency of self-injury also varies; some do it daily, while others can go weeks, months, or even years between episodes.
Reason #2: People who cut are their own harshest critics. A 2014 study asked college students who cut themselves, plus a control group of non-cutters, to keep a daily diary of their emotions for two weeks. The biggest difference between those who cut and those who didn’t? People who cut reported feeling dissatisfied with themselves much more often than non-cutters. This dissatisfaction manifested as harsh self-criticism. Indeed, anyone who self-injurers is really hard on themselves, and they sometimes carve their criticisms into their skin: “fat,” “stupid,” “failure.” Interestingly, a 2012 study showed that harsh self-criticism is most strongly related to self-harm, rather than other, more indirect forms of self-injury, like eating disorders, drinking, or drug abuse.
Reason #3: Cutting can be a way to stop feeling numb. In particular, individuals with a history of trauma may self-harm to take control of their own pain or to feel something other than numbness.
Reason #4: It’s an alternative outlet for emotional pain. Kids raised in a household where sadness, hurt, or disappointment gets invalidated or mocked start to believe that it’s not okay to feel bad. They turn to cutting as an “acceptable” way to feel pain—if they’re not allowed to feel it emotionally, they’ll let it out physically.
In short, think of cutting and self-harm as any other unhealthy coping mechanism like getting drunk, binge eating, or getting high; it’s a way to feel something other than what you’re feeling, or it can be a way to punish yourself for not measuring up.
It goes without saying that cutting is dangerous. Even when suicide isn’t the intention, it’s all too easy to cut too deeply. In fact, individuals who cut know it’s unhealthy, and they often go to great lengths to hide their behavior—not to mention their scars.
How to Prevent Self-Harm
In a 2015 study, researchers asked people who formerly cut themselves why they stopped. There were many answers, but three stood out. First, almost 40 percent said that they stopped cutting when they came to realize that they could handle feeling crappy for a while and that they would probably feel better soon. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) stopped because they felt someone loved or cared for them—they may have entered a loving relationship or their friends made them feel worthy and cared for. And a full 27 percent said they simply grew out of it.
But if those things don’t come into your life, what are some concrete methods to stop?
First, it’s important to match the solution with the reason for cutting. If cutting is a way to feel deep dark emotions, experiment with ways to feel those emotions safely: Listen to music that matches how you feel, have a good cry, or write out your thoughts in a journal, even if you just write page after page of profanity in big black letters. If cutting is a way to release tension, move your body—visit a boxing gym or go for a long, pounding run.
If channeling your pain into another activity doesn’t work, simulating cutting might help. It won’t be as satisfying, but it’s safer. Squeeze ice until your hands hurt or draw on your skin with a red marker instead of cutting it.
Finally, you can try to wait it out. It will be excruciating, especially at first, but the urge to cut will eventually pass. Promise yourself (or someone who loves you) that you’ll put at least 10 or 20 minutes, or however long you agree on, between the urge to cut and actually doing it.
Cutting can be notoriously difficult to stop on your own. If you’re struggling with self-injury, it's important to reach out to a mental health professional for support, help, and accountability. No one should suffer such emotional pain they feel the need to self-injure; a good therapist can help you get back on track.
To wrap up, cutting can be a hard habit to break—that harsh inner critic is a voice not easily silenced. It will take time and courage, but know that that inner critic can slowly be edged out by something you didn’t even know you had: inner strength.
A version of this piece also appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.
Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute for mental health care from a licensed professional.
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