Home » Blogs » Tales from the Couch » Cutting and Self-Harm: Understanding and Treatment

Cutting and Self-Harm: Understanding and Treatment


Self-injury, also called self-harm, is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting, burning yourself or other means. It’s typically not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger or frustration.

Myths and facts about cutting and self-harm:

Typically cutting and other means of self-harm tend to be taboo subjects and many people may have serious misconceptions about the motivations of self-harm. There are many myths that people have. Be aware of not letting these myths get in the way of getting help or helping someone you care about.

Myth: People who cut and self-injure are trying to get attention.
Fact: The painful truth is that people who self-harm generally do so in secret. Most are not trying to manipulate others or draw attention to themselves. In fact, shame and fear can make it very difficult to come forward and ask for help.

Myth: People who self-injure are “crazy” and/or dangerous.
Fact: It may be true that many people who self-harm suffer from anxiety, depression, or a previous trauma—just like millions of others in the general population. Self-injury is an unhealthy means of coping.

Myth: People who self-injure want to die.
Fact: A person who self injures may or may not want to die. Self-injury itself does not mean they want to die.  When a person self-harms, they are not trying to kill themselves—they are trying to cope with their pain. In fact, self-injury may be a way of helping themselves go on living. However, it needs to be considered that in the long-term, people who self-injure do have a much higher risk of suicide, which is why it’s so important to seek help.

Myth: If the wounds aren’t bad, it’s not that serious.
Fact: It needs to be known that the severity of a person’s wounds has very little to do with how much he or she may be suffering. We cannot assume that because the wounds or injuries are minor, there’s nothing to worry about.

How does cutting and self-harm work?

It’s important to acknowledge that self-harm helps and relieves pain—otherwise people wouldn’t do it. However, it is not a healthy way to cope or deal with pain. Some of the ways cutting and self-harming can seem to help include:

  • People turn to self-harm in order to express feelings they can’t put into words
  • Releasing the pain and tension you feel inside
  • Helping people feel as if they are “in control”
  • Distraction from overwhelming emotions or difficult life circumstances
  • Relieving guilt and punishing self
  • Making someone feel alive, or simply feel something, instead of feeling numb

If it works, why stop?

  • The relief is short-lived, and may be followed by shame and guilt. Meanwhile, it keeps people from learning more effective strategies for feeling better. Keeping it a secret may foster loneliness.
  • You can hurt yourself badly, even if you don’t mean to. It’s easy to misjudge the depth of a cut
  • If other ways of dealing with emotional pain are not learned, it puts that person at risk for bigger problems down the line, including major depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.
  • Self-harm can become addictive. It may start off as an impulse or something you do to feel more in control, but soon it feels like the cutting or self-harming is controlling you. It often turns into a compulsive behavior that seems impossible to stop.

There are many reasons why people self-harm, an important part of the process is to learn ways to stop self-harming, and find resources that can provide support through this struggle.

How do you stop?

The most effective way to stop self-harm is to seek professional help. There are a variety of coping skills and resources that are available. The first step is to confide in someone and let them know what has been going on, then find the right therapist to develop a way to find out what is causing the self-harm and ways in which to treat it and cope with the overwhelming feelings.

Other resources

S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self-Abuse Finally Ends) – Organization dedicated to helping people who self-harm. Includes treatment referrals, recovery information, and an information helpline: 1-800-366-8288. (S.A.F.E. Alternatives)

Mind Infoline – Information on self-harm and a helpline to call in the UK at 0300 123 3393. (Mind)

Kids Help Phone – A helpline for kids and teens in Canada to call for help with any issue, including cutting and self-injury. Call 1-800-668-6868. (Kids Help Phone)

Cutting and Self-Harm: Understanding and Treatment

Jessica O. Hunter, Psy.D.

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Hunter, J. (2015). Cutting and Self-Harm: Understanding and Treatment. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 10 Dec 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Dec 2015
Published on All rights reserved.