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Are Cutting and Self-Harm Behaviors Addictive?

Cutting and self-harm are common compulsive behaviors, and they can be very addictive. They are very difficult to control, and are always a sign of something else happening beneath the surface. Self-mutilation can be very difficult to understand for families who know their loved ones are doing it. They're heartbroken to know that it's going on, but they don't know how to stop it. The fact is that the individual who is performing these actions is often just as confused.

Maybe you’ve been participating in this behavior yourself. You know it’s not something you should do, but you can’t help yourself. You may not know why it makes you feel better; you just know that it does.

We know how you feel. The compulsion to cut and harm yourself is something you can’t control. Perhaps you’ve tried to control your behavior in the past, but it’s almost as though it’s become an addiction. In a way, it has.

It might be helpful for you to learn more about cutting and self-harm. The following information will help you gain insight into these behaviors. It will also provide you with the direction you need to get help.

What are Cutting and Self-Harm?

This is a subject that is rarely discussed, even though people have been doing it for a very long time. Families often assume that this type of behavior must be a suicide attempt. While it can be related, most of the time, it’s not. People who cut or self-harm will make small cuts on their bodies, usually on the arms or legs.

Research shows that most cutting behaviors begin around the age of 14 years old. Of course, there are older children who do it as well. Most of the time, self-mutilation will begin during the teenage years. Once it does, it’s very likely to persist into adulthood.

For a parent, self-injurious behaviors can be terrifying, and it’s normal for them to panic once they realize it’s happening. However, it's important to understand the compulsive nature of this condition. Parents and those participating in the behaviors should also realize that there are reasons behind them. We’ll talk about them in more detail in just a moment.

It’s common for people to confuse self-mutilation with suicidal ideation. Both involve harming yourself, but the intentions and outcomes are vastly different.

According to an article on the Psychology Today website, the two couldn’t be any different. Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS LPC is the author of The Anger Workbook for Teens. She says, “Self-harm is thought to be directly linked with suicide, but this isn’t the case. The two are actually as different as night and day. Unfortunately the two oftentimes get grouped together because both are inflictions of pain and sometimes people who begin with self-harm may later commit suicide. Generally people who self-harm do not wish to kill themselves; whereas suicide is a way of ending life.”

The biggest difference between the two is intent. Someone who is suicidal doesn’t see any way out. They may have tried many different ways to escape their current situations, and been unsuccessful. These acts come from a place of hopelessness and worthlessness.

People who self-harm do so as a way of coping with their problems and their lives. For many of them, the fact that they can still feel something reminds them that they’re alive. They may feel emotionally numb, which can translate into physical numbness as well.

Often called NSSID, non-suicidal self-injury disorder is a mental disorder that involves the destruction of your own body. Someone who suffers from this disorder has no suicidal intent, and the hurt they cause is deliberate.

For those with NSSID, they know that the pain they inflict won’t end their lives. However, they do carry the expectation that the injury will cause mild to moderate physical pain. Studies have shown that this condition is highest among adolescents. About 15% of teens in the community may suffer from it. In psychiatric settings, it afflicts around 40% of the youth.

Types of Self-Injurious Behaviors

There are many different ways people participate in these behaviors, and you’ll find that it involves more than just cutting. They may do any of the following:

Scratching or Pinching

People will often use the fingernails or other objects to scratch the skin. They will also pinch the skin hard enough to leave bruises and marks. Bleeding is usually desired.

Impact with Various Objects

This type of self-harm includes punching objects or banging them to bleed or bruise themselves. This type of self-harm is less common than other types.

Cutting

Cutting is a type of behavior that usually happens more among females than males. It usually involves smaller cuts on the arms or the legs.

Impact with Self

This type of self-injurious behavior involves hitting or punching yourself. Bruises and bleeding are the desired result with this behavior.

Ripping the Skin

This involves tearing or ripping the skin to the point of bleeding. It is less common than other forms of self-harming behaviors.

Carving

Carving does involve cutting, but there are some differences. People who do this will carve symbols, letters or numbers into their skin. They may form entire words with this method as a way to self-mutilate.

Disrupting the Healing Process

As people who cut or self-harm start to heal, they will interfere with the healing process. This might mean picking at scabs or reopening wounds so that they need to heal again.

Burning

Burning is a less common method of self-harm. Usually the burns are small, and may involve cigarettes or lighters.

Rubbing the Skin with Objects

This involves using glass or other sharp objects to rub the skin. Piercing the skin to cause bleeding and pain is the desired result.

Pulling Hair

This is medically known as trichotillomania. With this behavior, they will pull their own hair, and sometimes even pull it out. There are some people who will even ingest it afterwards.

Why do People Harm Themselves?

Why do people cut? You may be wondering what drives people to look at cutting as a solution to a problem. Self-harm is actually not a mental illness at all. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is a behavior that indicates a lack of coping skills.

For those who cut themselves, they may begin by experiencing overwhelming internal pain. They may be very angry, frustrated, or hurt. Quite often, people are not taught how to handle their emotions in healthy ways. They may be taught to suppress them instead, or just keep them hidden. When this occurs, self-harm and cutting feels like it is a release of this pain. For many young people, they just can’t see another way to handle their pain.

When people injure themselves on purpose, they usually feel better afterwards. Cutting stimulates their body's endorphins, and these are the pain-killing chemicals in the body. They experience a better mood after they've cut or harmed themselves. In other cases, people with more blunt moods might cut as a way to help themselves at least feel something.

After the cutting or self-harm is over, feelings of guilt usually accompany it. The person probably feels very ashamed about the behavior. This can drive him or her to do it again. It's easy to see how this can become a habit and turn into a very dangerous cycle.

If you’re currently participating in self-harming behaviors, you could be suffering from a co-occurring disorder. This is a mental health condition that drives you to cut or do something else to hurt yourself. There are many different mental illnesses that are associated with self-mutilation. These may include:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Depression
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Eating Disorders
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Substance Abuse Disorder
  • Conduct and Oppositional Disorders

If you do have a co-occurring disorder, it’s important for you to get help for it. If you only address the cutting behaviors, you’re probably not going to be able to recovery fully. It’s vital to also address the underlying cause. Once you do that, you’ll find that you’re much more likely to experience long-term recovery.

Dual diagnosis treatment can assist you in recovering from both your mental illness and self-harm. It’s a method that allows you to fully address the root cause of the problem so that you can heal.

Are Addiction and Self-Injury Linked?

So many people who purposely harm themselves state that their behaviors are addictive. Many even become addicted to them right after they first begin. There is a very good reason why this happens.

Cutting and Self-Harming Behaviors

When you get hurt in any way, your body will immediately release endorphins. It’s your body’s way of compensating for the pain you’re experiencing. That release serves as a distraction from the mental pain that you’re going through. Eventually, it will become a crutch.

People who injure themselves will quickly form addictions to that endorphin rush. Whenever they need an instant boost, they’ll cut or hurt themselves in some other way. In this way, cutting is very similar to other types of addictions.

In one study on non-suicidal self-injury, comparisons were made between the injurious behaviors and substance use. It was found that both resulted in cravings. This is why many experts argue for the treatment of these behaviors within an addiction framework.

Self-Mutilation Facts and Statistics

There are a lot of facts about self-injury that you might not be aware of. For example:
  • Every year, one out of every five females and one in every seven males participate in self-harm.
  • 90% of the people who have these compulsive behaviors begin during the teen years.
  • About 50% of people who cut or self-harm have been sexually abused.
  • Females make up about 60% of people who hurt themselves purposefully.
  • About half of the people who participate in these behaviors will begin around age 14 and continue into their 20s.
  • Many people who self-injure learn how to do it from websites or from friends.
  • There are about 2 million cases of self-harm reported each year in the United States.

Self-harm may be deemed as a non-suicidal behavior, but suicide is considered a form of self-harm. If someone continues to self-harm, the behaviors could become worse over time.

It’s incredible to think of how many young people believe that self-harm is the only answer to their problems. Consider this video where the speaker addresses kids in high school about cutting:

Most young people learn about cutting and other self-harming behaviors from their friends. They may confide in a friend that they’re going through a difficult time. As a result that person recommends cutting because of their own experience with it.

Kids can also learn about it through social media, and there are many groups dedicated to it on Facebook. Some experts are calling the increase of self-harm among teenage girls an epidemic. The number of cases has gone up two-thirds in only three years. However, social media may be playing an even bigger role in the problem.

For young girls who use Instagram, Facebook and other sites, they may be experiencing increased levels of stress and pressure. What they see on these sites may serve as reinforcement for their own feelings of inadequacy.

In days gone by, girls would develop eating disorders after seeing pictures of models on the covers of magazines. Today, that same message is being communicated to them through their phones. It’s readily available to them every time they get on social media. The problem is compounded by instances of bullying and school-related stress that happen online

Celebrities have a way of romanticizing almost everything. They create false illusions about relationships and success. They can also make cutting and self-harm seem like a viable option for someone dealing with emotional pain.

There are several famous women who have participated in these behaviors. It’s quite likely that a teen might look at them and think, If it worked for them, it will work for me. Some of the celebrities who hurt themselves include:

  • Demi Lovato – This is a name that many young women know well. They’ve long looked up to her because of her beauty and because of her musical talents. When she was 18, a friend of her family confided that she had struggled with an eating disorder. They also said she battled cutting. Fortunately, she got the help she needed to recover.
  • Angelina Jolie – The Oscar-winning actress often appears to have it all together on the outside. However, when she was a teenager, she struggled with cutting. The behaviors carried on into her twenties. She says that she was dealing with a difficult time during those years. She didn’t really even know what life meant. Today, she is free from those compulsive behaviors.
  • Megan Fox – She is known for her starring role in Transformers. However, she has also acknowledged that she has cut in the past, although she downplays the behavior. She stated that it was only a phase, and that it’s normal to go through it. There’s no telling whether or not it remains a problem.
  • Courtney Love – She has had a long musical career that spans four decades. She admitted to getting “blasted” on drugs and running around naked and cutting her arms. Today, she admits that it was crazy for her to do that, but she doesn’t indicate how she was able to stop.
  • Christina Ricci – She is known for her roles in “Monster” and “Sleepy Hollow.” During an interview, the interviewer noticed that she had red marks on her arms. Christina stated that she had put out cigarettes on her skin because of the resulting adrenaline rush. She said that you feel a sting, but then you don’t feel anything after that. She stated that it was a very calming feeling.
  • Princess Diana – This one may be surprising, but the late princess dealt with a lot of internal pain. She stated that she would often cut her arms and legs. Princess Diana was quoted as saying, “You have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help.”

It’s hard to believe that someone at the height of her popularity might decide to turn to cutting. However, it can happen, and it’s what happened in the case of Willow Smith.

Most people know Willow because of the success of her father, Will Smith. In 2010, she released her very first single, “Whip My Hair.” The song quickly reached the number 11 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100. She also performed at the White House, and she was the opening act for Justin Bieber on his world tour. Critics had taken to dubbing her Baby Rihanna, which was something she was proud of.

However, behind the scenes, she was in turmoil. She was only nine years old at the time, and she was battling mental health issues. For Willow, cutting herself was a way for her to cope with her emotional pain. It wasn’t until she was 17 and appearing on her mom, Jada Pinkett Smith’s web show that she revealed the truth.

Willow stated that after the popularity of the song died down, she stopped her singing lessons. She found herself in a place where she wondered what her purpose was. She wanted to know if there was anything else she could do with her life. After the tour ended, she was urged to finish her album, but she declined. She faded into a state of depression, and she listened to a lot of dark music.

Willow says, “It was like a kind of lull. It was just so crazy and I was plunged into this black hole, and I was cutting myself.”

Fortunately, she was able to pull herself out of that state. The time of her depression wasn’t long, but it was one that made an impact on her. Today, Willow is in a much better place, and she’s very willing to share her story with anyone who could benefit from it.

What are the Warning Signs?

If you’re a parent, you may not know what to look for that would indicate your child is harming themselves. This might be the first time you’ve ever dealt with this behavior, and you’re confused about what you should be seeing.

There are a lot of signs of self-harm that are easy to recognize, in many cases. These include:
  • Noticing a lot of cuts or burns on the wrists, arms, legs and even stomach.
  • Noticing that your child is wearing baggy or loose clothing.
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants on really hot days to conceal the wounds.
  • Always having an excuse for wounds when you ask them about them.
  • Finding scissors, knives or other cutting utensils in strange places around your home.
  • Spending long periods of time locked in a bedroom or bathroom.
  • Becoming isolated from you and from social situations.

If you’ve noticed any of these, your child could be self-harming. It’s important for you to respond, but you need to do so the right way.

Most parents are familiar with the concept of cyberbullying. This is when kids choose to use the Internet to say mean things to someone else. It happens all the time, and it’s often kept a secret. Instead of letting others know what’s going on, the victim usually says nothing. This might be an attempt to avoid being bullied in person.

One of the newest trends in self-harm is self-cyberbullying. There are some experts that are calling it digital cutting.

Digital cutting involves setting up anonymous accounts and then posting vicious insults and slurs. To an outsider, the insults appear to becoming from complete strangers. In a survey of about 5,500 12 to 17-year-olds, this behavior occurred for about 6% of them.

Psychologists believe that kids may be doing this as a way to avoid being mocked by their peers. They claim that they’re afraid of that, and so, the obvious way around it is to beat them to the punch. That way, if they do insult them, the teasing they receive might not be so bad.

How Should Families Respond to Self-Injurious Behaviors?

Parents or other family members often have a difficult time responding to self-harming behavior appropriately. When they find out, they are generally quite shocked. They're worried about the behavior continuing, and they want it to stop.

Perhaps you're a parent who has just discovered that her child has been cutting. You're not sure what to do, but you know you need to do or say something. It's important for you to respond the right way. To do that, you can take these steps:
  • Do your best to stay calm when you talk with your child. Getting upset is only going to make the situation more difficult.
  • Show your child that you care about them and what they’re going through.
  • Make sure your child knows that you accept them, even if you're not happy about the behavior.
  • Realize that this is a way of handling emotional pain for your child.
  • Listen to what your child says with compassion and understanding.
  • Do not panic or overreact to the situation.
  • Do not show revulsion or shock because of the behavior.
  • Do not ask your child to explain what happened to you. This might trigger another cutting occurrence.
  • Talk to your child about getting help for the problem.

You should know that many teens don't look at self-harm as being a huge deal. They see it as something that helps them feel better, so to them, it’s beneficial. They may know a lot of other people at school who do it as well. To them, it's a way to cope.

When you bring up the idea of getting help for the behavior, expect to be met with resistance. Your family member probably thinks that they are dealing with their problems just fine.

If you are caring and compassionate, you have a much better chance of getting your loved one to accept help. Professional help is certainly what is needed in this situation.

If you’re a parent who is worried about a teenager or a child with these behaviors, you may feel stuck. When you confront them about it, they may deny it, or tell you that it’s none of your business. That hurts, but it also leaves you wondering about what else you might be able to do. The next step in your situation may be to consider having an intervention.

Contrary to popular belief, interventions aren’t only for people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. They can also be very useful in helping people with cutting or other types of self-harming behaviors. You will also be able to get some support for yourself as you face this difficult time.

An interventionist can assist you by guiding the entire process. They’ll talk with you and other members of your family who will be involved first. You’ll receive coaching and information about how the meeting will go, and what you can do to help.

The meeting itself is likely to be very emotional for the person involved in the self-injury. Keep in mind that they may not believe that there’s anyone who really cares about what they’re going through. Seeing so many people show support for them might be just what they need to agree to get help.

Warning: Alcohol and Drug Use Can Trigger Self-Harm

Research has shown that drinking heavily and using drugs can put you at risk for self-harming behaviors. So many people participate in substance abuse and end up wanting to hurt themselves. The question is, why does it happen?

When you drink or use drugs excessively, a few different things can occur. You may find that you begin experiencing anger and aggressive thoughts or behaviors. Your inhibitions are decreased, and you’re also not able to exercise good judgment. You may also experience other side effects, such as:
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Delusions
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations

Some of these effects can feel almost as though you’re being “commanded” to hurt yourself. This might cause you to act on those commands, even if you don’t want to. Eventually, the behavior can become compulsive.

As many as 37% of patients who report self-harming behaviors have a history of chronic substance abuse. One out of five reported that before they hurt themselves, they had used substances. These statistics are rather alarming, but they definitely point to a link between the two.

Where Can You Get Help for Self-Injury Behavior?

Regardless of what happens, you should not ignore self-harm or cutting behaviors. Doing so is only going to make them worse. You may be the family member of someone who self-injures, or you may be the person doing it. Either way, it's important for you to know that there are plenty of resources for you.

You may feel more comfortable with online support and help. If that's the case, Self-Injury Outreach & Support is an organization you should consider. Their website is filled with helpful guides and information. You can read personal stories from others who have recovered. It also has some great information about how to resist those urges.

You also should consider talking with a therapist. This is true whether you're the cutter, or the family member. Both of you need support during this difficult time.

Therapy can help you understand what you're going through. Understanding the reasons behind your pain is critical for you during this time. Family members will benefit from talking about their challenges and getting support for the emotions they’re facing. Once the reasons behind the self-harming behavior are discovered, healing can start to take place.

You may also want to consider a professional treatment program for self-harm and cutting. An inpatient program might be the best option for you. You'll receive a tremendous amount of support in an inpatient setting. You'll also be protected against harming yourself any further.

It's important to talk with a professional about what type of treatment might be the right option. Your needs are different from someone else's, but the right kind of help is available for you.

There are many different forms of therapy that professionals may use to treat someone with NSSID. These include:

  • Problem-Solving Therapy – The goal is to help the individual identify and resolve problems and improve their problem-solving skills. It involves presenting the steps in written and verbal formats and guidance provided by the therapist.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy - This approach combines techniques from Zen Buddhism, cognitive behavioral therapy and skills training. It teaches the individual who to accept who they are and how to change at the same time.
  • Emotion-Regulation Group Therapy – This program focuses on regulating emotions and improving acceptance skills. It also implements strategies to help the individual pursue and obtain goals for their lives.
  • Voice Movement Therapy – This is a form of art therapy that combines sounds, singing, writing and other elements. The goal is to increase self-awareness and reduce emotion dysregulation.
Amytal Addiction Treatment

Treatment for Cutting and Self-Harm is Available for You. Get Help Today

If you cut, or you self-harm in another way, please know that you don't have to continue. It might seem as though you're stuck in an addiction cycle because of your compulsive behavior. Maybe you've tried to stop in the past, but you found that it just wasn't possible. So many people have found themselves in the same situation you're in right now.

You may be addicted to self-harming behaviors, but that doesn’t mean you have to remain where you are. It may seem as though you’re stuck, and that there’s no other way for you to cope with your pain. We want you to know that there are other ways, and that getting treatment can help you.

At Northpoint Washington, we recognize that cutting and self-harm are very addictive. Because of this, they need to be treated the same way any other addiction is treated. You may be suffering from an underlying co-occurring disorder that needs to be treated as well. We can assist you with getting the help you need.

Do you suffer from cutting and self-harming behaviors? Are you searching for a way to escape them? Please contact us today and talk to us about how we can help you.

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