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The Dangers of Cutting and Self-harm

Emotional pain can cut deep wounds in the human soul. Sometimes, the emotional pain can leave physical scars as well. For many people, the thought of causing themselves physical injury is completely foreign and unreasonable. For others, it is their way of coping with intense emotions. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no specific cause for self-injury behaviors, such as cutting. Individuals may feel out of place in their own skin, or they may not be able to identify with the members of the social or family group. A few of the emotions that have been identified among those individuals who cut themselves include:

  • Loneliness
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Rejection
  • Self-hatred
  • Sexual confusion

Cutting is dangerous on many levels, not the least of which is the physical injury that can result. Some cuts are not very deep, although they do break the skin and cause bleeding. Other cuts may require medical attention in the form of stitches. Regardless of the severity of the self-injury, all cutting should be taken seriously.

cutting abuseCutting May Cover Serious Emotional or Psychological Disorders

One of the dangers of cutting is the issue of co-occurring disorders. Anytime an individual suffers from more than one condition — such as drug or alcohol addiction with bipolar disorder — they are said to have co-occurring disorders. An article published by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs indicates that self-harming behaviors, such as cutting, are very often associated with other mental disorders. Someone who engages in this type of behavior may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or borderline personality disorder, for instance.

These other conditions can bring about dangerous situations for an individual who lacks the information and skills necessary to cope with the stress in their lives. When someone suffers from the deep depression involved in bipolar disorder, for instance, they may find a coping mechanism in the cutting. They are better able to control their personal world and the problems within it – or so they believe – by harming themselves. They are not attempting suicide, even if they cut their wrists. Rather, they are controlling how they experience pain. The physical pain may “hurt less” than the emotional pain. Sometimes, they feel numb emotionally, and the pain of the incisions they cause to themselves reminds them they are, in fact, still alive.

Untreated, conditions like bipolar disorder can be incredibly dangerous. One study, published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, indicates that individuals who have untreated bipolar disorder, for instance, are more likely to attempt suicide than those who receive treatment. If cutting is a release mechanism that allows the individual to function more readily, they may be able to hide the symptoms of conditions like bipolar disorder for longer periods of time. While the cutting itself is not an attempt to take their own life, there is a chance that they will still experience suicide ideation in another form.

Cutting Can Be Life-Threatening Due to Serious Injury

boyAnytime an individual is injured to the point that the skin is broken, there is a risk of infection. Anyone who has skinned their knee as a child may have developed a slight infection, where the healing wound becomes more painful and irritated. Deep cuts, such as those that can occur during cutting, can lead to very serious infections as well. Because of the secrecy involved in cutting — most individuals who engage in cutting behavior will hide their cuts or scars religiously to prevent anyone from finding out — the wounds often go untreated. An individual may also use whatever implements are available without taking sterilization precautions before they cut themselves. When this happens, the risk of infection can increase.

Tetanus, for instance, is caused by a type of bacteria that is present just about everywhere. Most commonly, it is found in animal manure, but it can live for quite a long time outside the body and has been found in soil, dirt and even dust. When it enters the human body, it will incubate for as long as three weeks before any symptoms are known. Unlike a simple infection where a cut might become red or sore, this strain of bacteria attacks the central nervous system. The indications include flu-like symptoms, including diarrhea and fever, sweating and a rapid heartbeat. The muscles will spasm, sometimes causing one’s jaw to lock (tetanus is commonly referred to as “lockjaw”), making it difficult to swallow. Left untreated, this condition can be fatal.

Another serious infection of concern for untreated cuts is gangrene.  This condition occurs when the oxygen supply to the tissues is interrupted. Blood carries the oxygen we breathe in to all of the parts of our body. Also carried in the blood is our supply of infection-fighting white blood cells. Without this supply of white blood cells, bacteria and viruses can grow unchecked at the wound site. If the blood supply falls below a certain point, preventing the oxygen and white blood cells from doing their jobs, gangrene can result. The tissue literally dies from disease and “suffocation.”

There are five types of gangrene that can develop, depending upon the form and severity of the injury, including:
  • Dry gangrene: slow to develop and most common in someone with a vascular disease
  • Gas gangrene: generally affect deeper cuts
  • Internal gangrene: affects internal organs
  • Fournier’s gangrene: very uncommon, affecting male genitalia
  • Wet gangrene: painful and life-threatening, generally resulting from an injury

Wet gangrene spreads very quickly, and it if is not treated urgently, it can be fatal. This is the type of gangrene that can result from a simple cutting injury. For patients who suffer from diabetes, for instance, a simple injury to their toe due to a lack of feeling may go unnoticed and bring about the immediate need to amputate their leg.

Treatment for Cutting and Self-harm

It is important to understand the total picture when treating these types of conditions so that every aspect of an individual’s development can be addressed. When someone suffers from more than one condition, neither of the conditions is “more important” than the other. Certainly, if someone has developed addiction, the addiction disorder must be addressed through evidence-based therapies. In the past, cutting has been seen as a side effect of other disorders, rather than as a condition which needs to be addressed by itself. For example, if someone is suffering from a major depression disorder, they may undergo psychotherapy for the depression. One might expect that the cutting or other self-injury behaviors would stop on its own. More recently, however, evidence is suggesting that individuals who receive specific treatment, in the form of cognitive behavioral therapies, especially for the cutting fair better in recovery than those who do not receive specialized attention.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that has a very specific agenda: to change negative, dangerous or unhealthy behaviors. In order to accomplish this, trained psychotherapists work with individuals to help them learn new life skills for coping with stress or other situations in their lives. The process is based on the belief that our behaviors are learned. When someone engages in cutting because they feel guilty, for instance, they learn that the feeling of pain in their flesh relieves the feelings of guilt. It is possible to unlearn that behavior through education and a new, rational view of the situation. When the person learns that cutting themselves is unhealthy and that there are others ways in which to deal with their guilt, the relief factor may be removed from the act of cutting. When this happens, they are more likely to refrain from self-injury in the future.

All cutting is serious and dangerous. If you or someone you love is engaging in any type of cutting, regardless of how serious you may believe it to be, it is imperative to treat it with care, concern and immediate attention. Please, do not hesitate to contact us here at Axis for more information about the dangers of cutting and to find out how we can help.

Further Reading