Cutting, burning, self harm… what is it all about?

by Lauren Heinrich, AMFT
Cutting is a sign of anxiety, not just thoughts of suicide.

Self-harm is a scary topic. It’s not a common point of conversation, and is often misunderstood.
It might be natural to think that a person hurting themselves in such an extreme way must be
contemplating suicide, but that is not always the case. It is hard to think that a person can be in
so much emotional pain that they want to harm themselves, but it happens more often than we
Many people who experience chronic, high stress or intense anxiety find a sense of relief and release by triggering a strong physiological response. This might express itself in a more mild behavior like a nervous jitter or tic, or in extreme cases, self-harm. Controlling how and what the body feels physically can feel like a way to control something when the rest of life is spinning out
of control.
Teens navigating new phases of life are particularly at risk.
The waves of new emotions and responsibilities that come with being a teen are overwhelming and can often feel isolating. Navigating relationships, dealing with bullying, and self-esteem issues are just a few of the
situations that can leave a teen feeling like they have nowhere to turn.
With no emotional release valve, self-harm or cutting may seem like the only way to feel
something. For many, self-harm is just that, a release. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they
want to die. It also does not mean that there is something inherently wrong with the person. It
means that they are desperately looking for a way to control and release their feelings and have
run out of other options.So what does that mean for those of us who want to help?

It means that the person you know who might be struggling with self-harm doesn’t want to feel that way either. It means it is OK to gently ask what is going on in their life, and how you can help. Self-harm and cutting should be taken seriously, and should not be ignored. Left untreated, cutting and physical self hurt can
have long term negative consequences, including hospitalization.  When someone is engaging in cutting, burning, or other harming acts they aren’t thinking about long-term secondary outcomes like infection of the wound, or cutting in the same spot repeatedly, accidentally going deep enough to hit main arteries or organs.  These are not usual for teens cutting or self-harming, but if their self harm site needs medical attention they are also usually filled with shame and fear of judgement to disclose what they have been doing and are less likely to access medical attention.

If you know someone who is struggling with self-harm, see if you can help them get in contact with a trained mental health professional. Don’t focus on the self-harm behavior, remember that is the symptom not the problem. Focus on the emotions and normalize that seeing a professional can help address them and can help teach them new ways of relieving their emotional turmoil and stress.

Asking for help when you feel anxious or overwhelmed can feel like too much for some people, but having someone notice they need help and who takes proactive steps to help goes a long way in helping overcome the sense of isolation that often goes along with self-harm.

Lauren Heinrich is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist.  She attended the prestigious Loma Linda University for her graduate degree and has experience working with clients in the field of addictions as well as extensive experience working with teens.  Lauren is also in the process of obtaining her basic training in EMDR through an EMDRIA approved trainer and will be using EMDR to help clients who are experiencing emotional distress during current events or due to memories of abuse, auto accidents, natural disasters, and relationship problems.