How to Help a Cutter -- Why Someone Might Self-Mutilate and How to Help Them

Self-mutilation can be very distressing and confusing for those who can only observe
Self-mutilation can be very distressing and confusing for those who can only observe | Source

This is in reply to the question asked in the answers section regarding a friend who routinely self-mutilates. Having been a self-mutilator, or “cutter” in the past, I believe I may be able to offer some insight into this practice. Cutting is, especially to the loved ones of those who do it, one of the most confusing and appalling side effects of internal unrest. By understanding a little bit about what drives it, you may be able to not only better understand what your friend or family member is going through that leads them to cutting, but may even have a chance to help them find a better solution to whatever is going on inside of them.

Cutting is definitely a coping mechanism, and it has a very powerful effect. For me, it was the fact that I could handle physical pain much easier than emotional pain. When the body is injured, it releases a lot of chemicals (including dopamine) to numb the person -- first the sharp pain takes your mind away from the inner turmoil, then the release of "feel good" chemicals relaxes and quiets your entire body and mind, driving thoughts and feelings far away. At one point in my life I was cutting every day.

For me, the solution was to find something that had just as powerful of an effect in getting rid of the internal agony. I went through a lot of therapists and inpatient care, learned a lot of coping skills and, while they helped, none of them lasted on their own. I think the thing that works is different for everyone -- for me it was vigorous exercise. If I get to the point that I feel like I just can't handle my emotions, I go for a run until I'm tired and out of breath, then switch to yoga or pilates, which requires complete concentration on controlling the body. Writing sometimes helps too, but usually by the time I get to the point I NEED that kind of fix my hands are shaking too hard to hold a pen.

Sadly, many cutters find different coping mechanisms that are not as healthy...of the people I met while in inpatient care that also cut, all but one aside from myself were on drugs, alcohol, or both. A couple of them are alcoholics to this day. It is not uncommon for cutting to give way to far more destructive and lifelong methods of coping without professional help. It may even initially require medication to level out someone’s emotions enough to allow them to really focus on their therapy, but medication is rarely a permanent solution and should almost never be a first option.

Don't expect miracle answers, it can be a lengthy process. For me, it took several years of therapy and practicing my coping strategies before I was able to stop. However, it is very effective if you can find that solution – to date, I haven’t cut in nearly eight years. If you are in a position of trust with a cutter, you might be in a position to be able to suggest exploring alternate coping mechanisms and he or she may listen to you. The hardest part is that you may have to accept that there’s nothing you can do to help except be there to support them as they seek out qualified help, or even as they resist offers of help.  Don’t give up, and make sure they always know how much you care and that you do care about, and are concerned about, the underlying causes of their cutting.

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tnderhrt23 profile image

tnderhrt23 5 years ago

Excellent hub, wychic! Most insightful write...Thank you for being willing to put it out there. Kudos to you!


wearing well profile image

wearing well 5 years ago from Lancashire U.K.

Thanks Wychic for sharing.I have recently discovered a friend of my daughter has self harmed and is confiding in me.I found it alarming and difficult to understand at first but as you have explained the chemical reaction that takes place in the brain,you can then easily relate to any other harmful addiction that other people often turn to when they are stressed,depressed or chronically fustrated with their life !

What do you think actually triggers this kind of "Cry for help,self-harm action?" and if you don't mind sharing your personal experience of this mental health disorder;I am curious to know why initially cutting is tried i.e If it would naturally occur without having any previous knowledge about it.

Excellent advice about exercise as it certainly does take your mind to a healthier,safer place and well done on your recovery too:)


wychic profile image

wychic 5 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming Author

Thanks, I'm glad it was helpful :). As to whether or not it would happen without previous knowledge of it, definitely yes -- I never knew other people cut until I started in therapy, and every intake questionnaire asked about self-mutilation. When I went into inpatient care I started seeing other people with scars similar to mine, and only then did I start learning how common it is.

Why it's initially tried, I don't know if it's different for different people, but I know that when I got extremely upset I would almost feel like my skin was too tight and it was suffocating me -- if that makes sense -- and scratching made it a bit better. One thing led to another, and eventually I figured out that the deeper I could scratch, the better it felt...and then realized that cutting felt even better, and didn't itch horribly afterward.

I think sometimes it is a cry for help, but just as often cutters try to hide it as best they can from anyone around them. I was one of the people who hid it because I knew others would be horrified and that they'd take steps to make me stop, and I didn't know anything else that would help me feel better. In fact, when I first started in therapy I lied about it the first few times I was asked, but in inpatient care they also asked to see any scars I had. Some people I know finally told someone because it scared them to do it, especially when it gets to the point that it feels normal. Others cut too deep, and the people around them learned when they had to seek medical care. I personally was never able to talk about it until after a few years of therapy, and then never to a therapist -- always to others who had gone through the same thing. It took a really long time to get past it, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't still want to -- thus the exercise :). It really is an addiction, and unfortunately one that works very well for the people who use it.


wearing well profile image

wearing well 5 years ago from Lancashire U.K.

Yes I would definately agree that it is horrifying to discover evidence of self mutilation and find scars on someone you really care about because then their parents or carers can feel that they have failed in some way to raise their child !

Would you agree then in the initial cutting being associated or triggered from acute and chronic anxiety from negative emotional experiences the self-harmer has possible experienced in their lives and so therefore by relieving their fustrations of possible mental or physical trauma seek this approach because it puts the self-mutilater back in control of their own personal emotional state?

Thanks again for your honest detailed reply.


wychic profile image

wychic 5 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming Author

It does seem to be coupled with intensely negative emotional experiences in most cases, I know it definitely was for me. However, there are some people who cut simply because they felt numb and wanted some kind of intense feeling. Others may have something internal going on and their family never even knows about it.

I have heard people say that cutting made them feel more in control of a situation -- and I'll say that I did feel like it was the only way I had to control my emotions to a point that I could stand to have them, but I saw the very desire to cut as obvious proof that I was not in control of anything around me, including myself.

I have no doubt that this is the single biggest thing that often makes friends and family feel like they've failed someone, but if they've never learned various coping skills then they can't be expected to know what could have prevented it, or to understand why someone does it. In all honesty, most therapists don't understand either, except what they were taught or read in books. Sometimes someone can be lucky enough to find a therapist who was a cutter at some point in their lives, but alternatively it's just important to find someone who's not going to focus on it and judge the action rather than trying to help the root issue. Unfortunately, as with any other addiction, if someone doesn't want help then they're not going to benefit from it.


Papaya 5 years ago

As a cutter, I would like to say that it isn't that easy. It's hard to break a habit, especially if it's become an addiction...like mine. I started as an outlet...my parents were getting a divorce. And now, I can't stop. It's hard and I've tried quitting...it's not working. Sorry.


mariefontaine profile image

mariefontaine 5 years ago from Indianapolis, Indiana

My son is a recovering self mutilator. I will be referring him to this article for future reference....


wychic profile image

wychic 5 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming Author

@ Papaya -- sorry to whom? It's your life, though I am sorry that you haven't yet found an effective answer. It's certainly not easy, it took me a lot of years of therapy to stop, and the urge is still there during times of emotional unrest. However, from the point of view of a friend or family member of a cutter, there's not much else they can do except try to be supportive when someone does seek a way out. Finding the underlying cause seems to be the first step, and in most cases it is the most difficult.

Mariefontaine -- Thanks, I hope it can be helpful :). I know this is one of those taboo subjects that a lot of people don't talk about, which is precisely why I decided I needed to. When I was cutting, it made me even more certain that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, and made me feel less like a "normal human being" because I thought I was the only one. In a way, that's one of the biggest ways that inpatient care helped, is because I got to meet a lot of other people who were also in their desperate isolated worlds and thought they were alone.


Blessed53 profile image

Blessed53 5 years ago from Dalton, Georgia

Wow, I just linked to your Hub from my last one because I was a cutter from the age of 12 until 34 when I proved to myself it was another addiction and haven't done it again for fear of being locked up again. For me it started after years of physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse and I was so full of anger and hatred for my mother that I wanted to kill her. When I would get overwhelmed with anger I would just see red, like my eyes were flooded with blood, and one night I just went into the bathroom, locked the door, took out a double-edged razor blade and made several slices up and down my wrists until the blood started flowing warm and red down my hand and over my fingertips, and almost immediately my heart stopped racing and I felt this calm feeling flooding over me and I was OK. The cuts weren't deep enough to need medical attention and I methodically bandaged them up, cleaned up and hid the mess and the blade for the next time and went on to bed. I had found a "cure" for all that raw rage that was bottled up inside. I hid the cuts and when my mother saw some one day I just explained it away by telling her I had scraped my arm on some raw wood at school. I wasn't "seeking attention" or trying to kill myself except one time in a blackout when I'd been drinking, smoking pot, and tripping on mescaline all night and my lover said he was leaving me and I found myself in the bathroom with an artery in the crook of my arm spraying across the room and running down the wall. Anyway, it's late and I'll come back another time. By the way, I'm a Christian poet and writer now, still got some mental issues, but fighting the battles with the Lord's help and professional help. Like to hear from you. See some great stuff here.

God bless!

Always, in all ways, to God the honor and praise!

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