Cutting: A Bonafide Addiction?


Every time I speak to a crowd about self-injury, and specifically cutting, I am asked to comment on whether or not I think cutting is an addition. If we look at the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defining of addiction, it states: a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble). Addiction involves both strong psychological and physiological components.

Many young people report to me that once the started self-injuring, they couldn’t stop, or rather, didn’t want to stop. The psychological relief they felt when they cut themselves was a strong reinforcer, causing them to turn to the behavior the next time they were in intense emotional pain. The sight of the blood seems to act as a change agent as it  triggers an emotional change that otherwise couldn’t be achieved by their own will. It serves as a bright red stop sign to the emotional pain. Future cutting episodes are described as planned preoccupations. The how, where and when become as much a part of the behavior as the actual act of cutting. If you ask these young people, cutting IS an addiction. They become as preoccupied with it as an alcoholic is thinking about his/her next drink.

So are there physiological effects that gives cutting similar properties to drug or alcohol addiction? In the limited studies on self-injury, scientists have two major theories. One is that the body released endorphins, such as dopamine and serotonin, which minimize pain and provide a sense of well-being. The act of cutting produces the same “feel good hormones” as a drink or a shot of heroin does. Another hypothesis is that people who self-injure have an opioid (endorphin) deficiency and when a person cuts it increases their natural opioid levels allowing them to feel okay again. In this theory, cutting would bring the person back to a type of homeostasis. Either theory leaves us with the understanding that the act of cutting helps the cutter’s body to regulate it’s chemistry. A powerful force.

Both psychological and physiological factors play a role in addiction. So many of those who self-injure report feeling like self-injury is an addiction for them and that is effective in providing relief. In absence of another coping skill that is equally or more effective, those who engage in cutting are often reluctant to give it up. Considering what we know about addiction to substances and other behaviors, it seems that cutting can be a bonafide addiction.

If you or someone else is struggling with addiction, there is help.


The Suffering Beneath the Smile: Self-Harm (Trigger Warning!)

ImageIf you look at my “Where to Find Help” section you may notice something. The help category is largely for self-injury. There’s a reason for that. My daughter is a recovering self-injurer. It evolved the way it does with so many…at the onset of adolescence, in a flurry of confusing emotions, and in total secrecy. It became a full blown addiction. For those who don’t understand I’ll explain it in it’s simplest form. There is a trigger or series of triggers in the environment (an argument with mom, being left out of a friend group, hating your body, academic pressure, etc.) and an overwhelming amount of intense feelings like anger, sadness, and desperation, then an urge to “purge” the feelings, physically, to cut yourself. And a strange thing happens, instead of pain she feels a sense of relief and calmness. And it happens again, and again, and again. Until there is no room left on her arm. So she moves to her inner thighs (which she hates anyway). And then her lower back, or her breasts, or her ankles. And she is ashamed but she cannot stop. And her body becomes the canvas that holds her deepest pain and secrets. On the outside? Nothing is wrong. She’s a star on the track team. She’s getting A’s and B’s in school. She has lots of friends. She’s smiling; laughing even. But on the inside she’s a total mess. And so was I.

Even being a trained therapist I wasn’t prepared for this. It was 8 years ago and I had heard of self-injury but had no experience with treating it, I barely knew what it was, and certainly I had no idea how to deal with it when it was my own daughter. I muddled though. Desperate for answers. Making mistakes. Obsessively researching it it hopes of making it stop. It was quite a terrifying experience at the time. I learned a lot. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had had someone to talk to about it, to explain it to me. But I didn’t. And the internet was my only teacher. 

Fast forward 8 years and I’m a self-declared expert now. I’m even giving conference presentations on the topic. And my daughter, she’s in recovery, making growth, and finding her way as a young woman. We couldn’t be closer. But for anyone going though this, please know, your not alone. The prevalence is staggering. Approximately 15% of teens report self-harming without suicidal intent. There is information out there. Please see my “Where to Get Help” section to get you started. Feel free to message me.