How To Cope Without Cutting: Things You Can Do Instead Of Cutting

Updated January 27, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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, though, is the most common form of self-harm. Cutting refers to a person using a razor or 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 cutting: 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 the 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 and helplessness. It's not hard to imagine that remembering terrible things that happened can cause a person to feel out of control. The blood that results from a cut is grounding for some survivors.


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Do People Cut to Kill Themselves?

The short answer is no. Although it is true that cutting may result in death, it is often not lethal or dangerous.Depending on the size and depth of the cut, a person who self-harms may need medical attention.

Note:If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7.

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 their feelings. It is common for people who have 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 then become an addiction because of the powerful relief that is felt as a result of this brain response to injury.

Cutting and Dissociation

Dissociation is that dream-like or robotic state where you feel less than the present. Dissociation occurs as a result of anxiety,post-traumatic stress disorder 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 intentionally is a basic technique that you can add to 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. Try relaxing your jaw and shoulders, softening your gaze, taking a big breath in to expand your chest, holding it for a moment and then slowly letting the breath out. Allow your stomach to move in and out with each round.

Grounding Techniques

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 during an intense emotional or physical state. You might hear this called “centering” or “mindfulness.”

Grounding is not complicated. It's simply a matter of snapping back to what is going on in the present. Doing simple things like stretching, rolling your neck slowly, blinking hard, washing your face, crunching on ice, chewing gum, and being outside help tremendously. You can activate grounding by doing things that are usually automatic and easy (ex., 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, a thumb might represent sight, and a label for sight might be the sky; the middle finger represents smell, and a label is vanilla.

After writing and drawing all this on paper, post it on your refrigerator or other safe places in the home where it can be easily seen. Memorize it.

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.
  • 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. Or, 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:

  • Where am I?
  • What is today?
  • What is the date?
  • What is the month?
  • What is the year?
  • How old am I?
  • 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 creative 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:


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  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Writing
  • Singing
  • Storytelling
  • Telling jokes
  • Dancing
  • Journaling
  • Writing or reading poetry
  • Participating in 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 integrate the new skill into your life, it can be cathartic. It will help relieve the pain that you feel, so you can avoid self-harming.

Engage Your Senses without Self-harming

Cutting is effective because 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 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 dissociate 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.
  • Pushing hard against a wall, then relaxing the muscles.
  • Lighting a scented candle or incense.
  • Taking a shower.
  • Using essential oils.
  • Walking outdoors.

Talk to Someone

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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 who you can talk to about how you feel:

  • Parents or family
  • Close friends and trusted peers
  • Teachers, professors, or guidance counselors
  • A therapist 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. If left unaddressed, it is likely that the emotional, mental, and physical distress will worsen with time. This can be prevented by seeking an in-person or online therapist specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). A therapist can teach you techniques to change negative thoughts that might be the cause of your self-harming behavior. A therapist will also offer emotional support and understanding as you explore underlying reasons for these thoughts.

If you’re considering online therapy, know thatcognitive-behavioral therapy via the internet can be more effective than face-to-face therapy. A review of 17 studies indicated that this delivery method of treatment was successful at reducing symptoms of depression. One study cited the low cost of online CBT. CBT can also be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and PTSD.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

If you know someone who is cutting, ask them to read this article and then connect with one of our BetterHelp counselors who has expertise in this area. If you engage in self-harm, reach out today. With compassion, a counselor will help explore underlying issues and help address them. A counselor can meet at a time that’s most convenient for you and from the comfort of your own home.Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

Dr. Fadil has helped me enjoy my life in ways I never thought possible by helping me recognize harmful coping mechanisms, understanding my emotions and connecting with my true self in a positive way.

Talking to Jean really helped me through a challenging time with anxiety. She helped me with coping strategies to prepare for stressful events and also normalized what I was going through. 

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