When the blade cuts too deep: The psychology behind self-inflicted harm

When the blade cuts too deep: The psychology behind self-inflicted harm

“But it helps release the pain / That I go through every day / The blade is sharp and cold / As it runs across my skin / Leaving me to ponder / And decide how deep I cut in.” These are the words from a poem written by Cassandra Johnson, who was addicted to a self-inflicted behavior known as cutting. Cutting, burning and scratching are painful methods of self-harm known as non-suicidal self-injury. Because suicides receive more media attention, less information and statistics are available on self-harm with no intent to commit suicide.

A study published in a 2011 Lancet on self-harm revealed that 10 percent of adolescent girls and 6 percent of adolescent boys cut themselves. The study also revealed that those who practice self-harm are more likely to have depression or anxiety, and are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. These self-harm behaviors are dangerous physically, mentally and emotionally.

Why do teens cut themselves?

Contrary to general assumptions, cutting and other forms of self-harm are not a primary form of social manipulation. Those who harm themselves are hurt emotionally and mentally. Physically harming themselves allows them to release their inner emotional pain.

Studies conducted in 2004 and 2005 by Matthew K. Nock, Ph.D., psychology professor at Harvard University, and Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of North Carolina, suggest that four primary reasons prompt teens to injure themselves:

  • to reduce negative emotions
  • to experience feelings besides numbness or emptiness
  • to avoid certain social situations
  • to receive social support

In a way, this is a maladaptive behavior for dealing with stress. Teenagers are constantly dealing with stress from school, family and friends. They are under peer pressure to maintain a certain image and many are bullied on a daily basis. Cutting is a means to release tension from stress, but it also creates more problems than it solves. As an addictive cycle, most people who cut do not just cut once; they tend to cut on a daily or weekly basis.

Who is at risk?

Self-harm is often done based on impulses and can sometimes be described as impulse-control behaviors. The person at greatest risk for self-injury is a teenage female who has friends who also cut. Other risk factors include substance use, life issues and mental health issues. This behavior has many deep underlying causes that need to be addressed, so it is important to seek help as soon as possible.

How to get help

Psychotherapy is the best form of treatment. Therapy enables people to recognize their triggers and to find healthy, alternative solutions to these triggers that do not involve self-injurious behaviors. Therapy also helps people replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts and identify past experiences that have caused pain and buried feelings.

If you know someone who is showing self-injurious behaviors, it is critical that he or she seeks treatment. For 24/7 assistance, please call the Dual Diagnosis Helpline at 855-981-6047.