The Mayo Clinic reports that for these troubled young people, “Physical injury distracts them from painful emotions or helps them feel a sense of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation. For those who have feelings of emptiness or little emotion, self-injury is a way to feel something, anything, even if it's physical pain.” Some say when cutting themselves they finally “feel something” because they have shut down their strong emotions of anger, depression and suffering low self-worth.
Not only do psychological reasons come into play, but also physical factors are involved with the self-injury disorder. “One theory holds that during self-mutilation, the body releases chemicals called beta-endorphins, which have a powerful analgesic property and provide an instant feeling of calm," says Lynn Ponton, M.D. The behavior can become addicting. "When someone hurts emotionally but can't express it, a physical injury will redirect that pain to the physical realm,” explained Ponton.
"It's a physical expression of anger," says Wendy Lader.
Lader and Karen Conterio are early pioneers in dealing with people with self-injury problems. The psychologists are directors of SAFE (Self-Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives Program in Chicago. Together they wrote the book, “Bodily Harm: The Breakthrough Healing Program for Self-Injurers.”
Cutters are people with deep psychological pain."The self-injury isn't the problem," says Lader. "It's the feelings that lead to it, the anger and the abandonment."
However, help is available: People seeking information can call SAFE at 1-800-DONTCUT.
Prevention and treatment are similar. Two important factors help stop self-injury according research. Developing an ability to identify and express feelings verbally is one factor. The other contributing factor which ceases self-injury is for cutters is to learn and use positive alternatives to self-mutilation. In therapy, writing their feelings in journals and talking with friends are encouraged as healthy outlets for emotions in addition to learning good coping skills.
"Therapy teaches them to think about their self-injurious behavior by making them ask, 'What feelings am I trying to avoid by thinking about cutting?'" says Conterio. She believes that once people understand the emotions that motivate their harmful behavior, it is easier for them to stop.