How to Cope Without Cutting
Cutting is often referred to as self-harm or self-injury. There are other forms of self-harm such as burning or puncturing the skin. Cutting is the most common form of self-harm. Cutting refers to a person using a razor, scissors, or other sharp objects to cut their skin. Often this takes the form of horizontal lacerations on forearms and thighs. It might be difficult for you to understand why a person engages in self-harm. There are various reasons for it: to feel something, to feel nothing, to cope with overwhelming feelings, to reduce angst or tension, to express self-disgust or to express having control over hurt. Survivors of trauma are not the only people who engage in cutting, but it is more likely someone has had trauma if they cut. Trauma can cause overwhelming feelings of fear, helplessness and horror. It’s not hard to imagine that remembering terrible things that happened can cause a person to feel out of control. The image of blood that happens when someone cuts their skin is grounding for some survivors.
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Do People Cut to Kill Themselves?
Suicidal thoughts can result from depression and anxiety. Suicidal thoughts also happen as a result of stress. Not everyone that suicides has a mental health diagnosis. Although it is true that cutting may result in death, it is often not lethal. Cutting is not necessarily a statement about suicide. Cutting is not a suicidal act per se (but it may be a cry for help). Cutting is often not dangerous, though depending on the size and depth of the cut, a self-harming person may need medical attention. So, why do counselors try to help people stop?
Why is Cutting Bad for Me? Why Should I Stop?
Like other addictions, cutting represents an unhealthy method of coping. Sometimes, people do not understand how to cope with their emotions. People who are depressed, anxious, or angry have a difficult time understanding how to handle and control the intensity of feelings. It is common for people who suffer from emotional issues to engage in cutting.
Though cutting is often not lethal, it leaves permanent scars on the body. These are a painful reminder of difficult times. When people recover from the issues that caused the cutting, they don’t want to be reminded of their past with scars.
You can get addicted to cutting. When the skin is hurt by cutting, the brain sends out an opioid-like response and an analgesic to soothe the skin. This is all a natural response to injury. Cutting can become an addiction because of the powerful relief that is felt as a result of this brain response to injury.
As a counselor, I want clients to be able to cope with emotions without hurting the body. I want clients to be able to experience and move through any emotion or thought or to be able to cope with tension, without resorting to harmful behavior.
Cutting and Dissociation
Dissociation actually means lots of different things. But for the purposes of this article, you can think of it as that dream-like, checked-out or robotic state where you feel less than present. I call it auto-pilot. Dissociation occurs as a result of anxiety, overwhelming feelings, PTSD or trauma. You might find you dissociate when you cut or you might find that you cut to avoid dissociation. Either way, grounding tools, along with breathing, help you to stay present and avoid self-harm.
Breathing Through Intense Feelings
Though you are breathing to keep you alive, you may not breathe properly when you’re under stress. Breathing is a base technique that you can add to with mindfulness, relaxation, and grounding. Being calm on the inside starts with breathing. Breathing helps you to pause before acting on impulse. If you breathe deeply, you’ll give yourself a chance to think before you resort to cutting. There’s a lot of information out there on how many breaths you should take per minute. Instead of concentrating on the counting, focus on the following: relax your jaw and shoulders, soften your gaze, take a big breath in to expand your chest, hold it for a moment and slowly let the breath out. Let your belly move in and out with each round.
Grounding is a technique that helps keep you in the present (in the here and now). It helps reorient you to reality. It helps you to regain your mental focus and attention during an intense emotional or physical state. You might hear this called centering or mindfulness.
Getting grounded is not complicated. It’s simply a matter of snapping back to what is going on in the present. Doing simple things like stretching, clapping hands, slow neck rolls, blinking hard, washing your face, crunching on ice, turning your head to focus on an object, chewing gum and getting cooled down help tremendously. You can activate grounding by doing things that are usually automatic and easy (such as writing, combing your hair, brushing teeth) with your non-dominant hand.
Here are some formal grounding techniques to try. Start all exercises by taking deep breaths. Breathing slowly is essential! Grounding skills can be divided into two specific approaches: Sensory Awareness and Cognitive Awareness
1. Sensory Awareness
Grounding Exercise #1:
Begin by tracing your hand on a piece of paper and label each finger as one of the five senses (smell, sound, sight, taste, touch). Then take each finger and identify something special and safe representing each of those five senses. For example, my thumb represents sight and a label for sight might be the sky, my middle finger represents smell and a label for that is vanilla.
After writing and drawing all this on paper, post it on your refrigerator or other places in the home where it can be easily seen. Memorize it. Snap a photo with your phone to take it with you.
Practice this during good times.
Whenever you get triggered, instead of cutting, breathe deeply and slowly, and put your hand in front of your face where you can really see it – stare at your hand and then look at each finger and try to do the five senses exercise from memory
Grounding Exercise #2:
Here’s the 54321 “game”.
• Name 5 things you can see in the room with you.
• Name 4 things you can feel.
• Name 3 things you can hear right now.
• Name 2 things you can smell right now (or, 2 things you like the smell of).
• Name 1 good thing about yourself.
Other ideas for grounding with senses:
• Hold a pillow, stuffed animal, cool stone or a ball. Push against the wall.
• Place a cool cloth on your face, or hold something cool such as a can of soda.
• Listen to soothing music.
• Put your feet firmly on the ground, wiggle your toes.
• FOCUS on someone’s voice or a conversation that is happening around you. Turn on the radio.
2. Cognitive Awareness Grounding Exercise:
Reorient yourself in place and time by asking yourself some or all of these questions:
1. Where am I?
2. What is today?
3. What is the date?
4. What is the month?
5. What is the year?
6. How old am I?
7. What season is it?
Alternatives to Self-Injury
Those who are using cutting to cope with their emotions are cutting to have an outlet and feel relief from their pain or numbness. People who cut often have a difficult time expressing how they feel. That is why it can be helpful to explore different artistic forms of expression. Through artistic expression, you will be able to strengthen your inner voice and get in touch with emotions such as hurt, fear or anger. There are many ways to creatively express yourself, including:
- Telling jokes
- Expressive arts such as drama and acting
- Making jewelry
- Cooking and baking
Each of these forms of expression may take time and patience before they are effective. But once you get the hang of your new skill, it can be cathartic. It will help relieve the pain that you feel so you do not need to cut yourself.
Engage Your Senses Without Self-Mutilating
So, we talked about different reasons that people might cut. A major reason why cutting is effective for those who are suffering is that the physical sensation relieves the emotional pressure momentarily. Those who are under a great deal of stress may resort to cutting for temporary relief. Some may also cut in order to feel alive and present at the moment. The shock of the physical pain is enough to give a person a ‘rush’ to distract from the emotional pain or dissociation from the body and spirit. Some ways to engage the senses without cutting include:
- Holding on to ice cubes
- Snapping a rubber band on your wrist
- Massaging pressure points in the head and face
- Listening to loud music
- Eating spicy foods
- Push hard against a wall, then relax the muscles
- Lighting a scented candle or incense
- Taking a shower
- Using essential oils
- Walking outdoors
Talk to Someone
If you are in emotional pain or are confused about your feelings or sense the need to cut, the best thing you can do is to talk to someone about it. Talking it out with a professional can help you feel supported, comforted, and secure. It will also help you feel like cutting is not your only option.
There are many people that you can talk to about how you feel including:
- Parents or family
- Close friends and trusted peers
- Teachers, professors, or guidance counselors
- Therapists, counselors, or other mental health and medical professionals
- Support groups and community programs
If you resort to cutting or to other forms of self-harm to cope with your emotions, it is important to take the necessary steps to make sure you get the help that you need and deserve. If left unaddressed, it is likely that the emotional, mental and physical distress will worsen with time.
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Traci Baxendale Ball, LMSW, CAADC is the founder of Vibrant Health Company LLC
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