Understanding Cutting and How to Find Help

Why It Happens and How to Stop Self-Harm

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Cutting is a form of intentional self-harm used to cope with stress or trauma or to process feelings and should always be taken seriously. Self-harm often indicates a mental health condition, such as a mood or personality disorder. Though most people who cut do not intend suicide, repeated cutting is associated with an increased risk of suicide.

This article will explain why people self-harm by cutting, provide information on signs and risk factors, discuss alternative ways to cope, and discuss strategies to support someone struggling with self-harm.

The unrecognizeable people meet for a group therapy session.

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If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Crisis & Suicide Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one is in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Explaining Cutting: Why Do People Hurt Themselves?

It may be difficult to understand why someone would intentionally hurt themselves. People who cause self-harm are usually trying to escape psychological or emotional pain. Self-harm can bring a sense of control and relief.

Self-harm is also associated with several mental illnesses, including personality disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder), eating disorders, depressive and anxiety disorders.

According to one review, reasons for nonsuicidal self-harm, in order of most to least common, are:

  • Managing distress and emotional regulation: Self-harm can distract from emotional pain. It can also help people calm down when feeling out of control.
  • A means of trying to exert an influence on other people: For some people, it's a way to demonstrate their commitment or love for another person. For others, self-harm serves as a means to draw warmth and empathy from people.
  • A form of punishment: Self-harm can be a form of self-punishment or serve as a way to punish others.
  • Dissociation: Self-harm can help people escape from numbness or to become numb when their emotions are too overwhelming.
  • For a rush of emotion: Cutting and self-harm can bring a rush of excitement or exhilaration that help people feel more alive.
  • As a suicide-prevention method: Some people cut or harm themselves to avoid suicide.
  • For maintaining boundaries: For some, self-harm allows them to determine and define the boundaries of their bodies.
  • As a means of expressing or coping with sexuality: Some people describe cutting as a release or feeling of relief, similar to a sexual release.

Signs of Cutting

Self-harm through cutting is most common in adolescents and young adults, and some people who cut will show signs that they are in distress and at risk for cutting or that they have started this behavior.

Risk factors include:

  • School distress
  • History of abuse
  • Bad relationships with one's body
  • Being socially withdrawn
  • Using or abusing substances
  • Poor family support

Signs of cutting behavior include:

  • Scars or marks on the skin
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Keeping sharp objects around, like razors or pocketknives
  • Bloodied cloths or tissues
  • Attempts to keep certain areas of the body covered

Can Cutting Be Fatal?

Those who cut usually do so to relieve psychological pain, not to attempt suicide. However, people who cut—especially repeatedly—are at an increased risk for suicide.

How Do You Stop Cutting?

Support from a licensed mental health professional is important any time cutting is suspected or known. During therapy, support, empathy, and specific interventions to help reduce the cutting behavior and treat any underlying mental illness are provided.

There are several evidence-based therapeutic approaches to treating a person who cuts, including:

How to Help Someone Who’s Cutting

Cutting and other self-harming behaviors should always be taken seriously, but panicking and jumping to conclusions or rushing to judgment will likely shut the person down and prevent them from wanting to talk further.

The best way to approach someone who might be cutting is with calmness and empathy. Talking to the person without judgment, listening to their concerns, and offering trust and support can open up the opportunity for a conversation about treatment.

Risks of Cutting

People who cut or intentionally hurt themselves in other ways are at higher risk of suicide, especially when the behaviors occur repeatedly. Though all self-harm is dangerous, those who cut tend to do so more repeatedly than other forms of self-harm, putting them at higher risk.

Cutting is a dangerous way of coping with emotional distress and mental health conditions. Without appropriate treatment, these conditions will continue and may worsen.

Is Cutting Always Serious?

Since those who cut may not seek professional support, family and friends are often an important means of intervention. All acts of self-harm, including cutting, should be taken seriously and warrant a mental health evaluation.

Other Ways to Cope

For many people, cutting is a way to relieve psychological pain. Consider the underlying cause for the urge to cut and try one of these strategies instead.


If you're feeling angry, try the following:

  • Hitting a punching bag
  • Crushing aluminum cans
  • Ripping up an old newspaper
  • Cleaning

Sadness or Depression

If you're feeling sad and depressed, you might be craving comfort. Try to comfort yourself by:

  • Taking a warm bath
  • Having a cup of tea or hot cocoa
  • Playing with a pet
  • Doing something nice for someone else

Emptiness or Numbness

When you're feeling empty or numb, do something to engage your senses, such as:

  • Taking a cold shower
  • Biting into a hot pepper or chewing on ginger root
  • Stomping on the ground
  • Focusing on your breath


If you're feeling guilty or like you deserve to be punished, try to rewrite your internal dialogue by:

  • Making a list of your best qualities
  • Talking to someone who cares about you
  • Doing a random act of kindness for a stranger
  • Thinking about a time that you did something good and how it made you feel


People use cutting and other forms of self-harm to relieve emotional pain. There are often signs that someone is cutting or is at risk of self-harm, and they should always be taken seriously. Though self-harming and attempting suicide differ, people who cut are at increased risk for suicide.

If someone you care about is cutting, approach them with calmness and empathy when discussing their cutting behavior and treatment options. The most effective treatments for cutting involve certain types of psychotherapy.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Edmondson AJ, Brennan CA, House AO. Non-suicidal reasons for self-harm: A systematic review of self-reported accountsJ Affect Disord. 2016;191:109-117. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.11.043

  3. Remaschi L, Cecchini C, Meringolo P. Community-based strategy to prevent deliberate self-harm in adolescence: an inquiry to find risk factors at school. Int J High Risk Behav Addict. 2015;4(1):e19663. doi: 10.5812/ijhrba.19663.

  4. Mental Health America. Self-injury (Cutting, self-harm or self-mutilation).

  5. McAndrew S, Warne T. Hearing the voices of young people who self‐harm: Implications for service providers. Int J Ment Health Nurs. 2014;23(6):570-579. doi: 10.1111/inm.12093.

  6. Bennardi M, McMahon E, Corcoran P, Griffin E, Arensman E. Risk of repeated self-harm and associated factors in children, adolescents and young adults. BMC Psychiatry. 2016;16(1):421. doi: 10.1186/s12888-016-1120-2

  7. The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Distraction techniques and alternative coping strategies.