Cutting, Burning, and Other Forms of PTSD Self-Mutilation

Learn What PTSD Self-Mutilation Is and Why It Happens

Teenager showing scars form self-harming
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Self-mutilation in people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD self-mutilation), and in general, is deliberate and direct self-harm, such as cutting or burning, with the intent to injure or destroy body tissues. Self-mutilation (also called self-harm or self-injury) isn't an attempt at suicide, but it does result in injury severe enough to cause tissue damage.

 Self-mutilation behaviors may include:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Needle-sticking
  • Head-banging
  • Skin-carving
  • Severe scratching
  • Punching oneself
  • Biting oneself

Cutting, skin-carving, severe scratching, head-banging, and punching oneself are some of the most common methods of self-injury.

Consequences

Deliberate self-harm is a seriously injurious behavior. The injury itself may be serious, requiring medical care. Self-mutilation may also leave scars that the self-harming person feels ashamed of and tries to hide from others' view.

Unless a self-harming person gets treatment to help stop it, the mutilations may get more severe over time.

Why Do People Do This?

It appears that deliberate self-harm is a way of expressing and managing negative emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, shame, and/or anger. Deliberate self-harm may also provide a temporary escape from emotional pain. However, although it may bring a kind of temporary relief from painful emotions, the emotions may return and intensify afterward.

The experience of a traumatic event has been linked to deliberate self-harm. In particular, people who have a history of sexual abuse (including rape) or physical abuse are more likely to deliberately harm themselves, as are people with PTSD.

Why Do People With PTSD Do It?

People who have PTSD may use deliberate self-harm as a way of "coming to"--getting back in touch with the present moment (also called "grounding").

In this form of PTSD self-mutilation, when people with PTSD experience dissociation or flashbacks, they may do self-harm, such as cutting or burning, to "shock" their bodies back into the present moment and end the dissociation or flashbacks.

Resources

If you are cutting, burning, or otherwise harming yourself, or if you know someone who is, it's very important to seek help. The S.A.F.E. Alternatives website provides resources and referrals for people struggling with deliberate self-harm.

Source:

Chapman, A. L., & Dixon-Gordon, K. L. (in press). Emotional antecedents and consequences of deliberate self-harm and suicide attempts. Suicide & Life Threatening Behavior.

Chapman, A. L., Gratz, K. L., & Brown, M. Z. (2006). Solving the puzzle of deliberate self-harm: The experiential avoidance model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 371-394.

Gratz, K. L. (2003). Risk factors for and functions of deliberate self-harm: An empirical and conceptual review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 192-205.

Gratz, K. L. (2001). Measurement of deliberate self-harm: Preliminary data on the Deliberate Self-Harm Inventory. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 23, 253-263.

Greenspan, G.S., & Samuel, S.E. (1989). Self-cutting after rape. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 789-790.

Harned, M.S., Najavits, L.M., & Weiss, R.D. (2006). Self-harm and suicidal behavior in women with comorbid PTSD and substance dependence. The American Journal on Addictions, 15, 392-295.

Lyons, J.A. (1991). Self-mutilation by a man with posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 179, 505-507.

Pattison, E.M., & Kahan, J. (1983). The deliberate self-harm syndrome. American Journal of Psychiatry, 140, 867-872.

Pitman, R.K. (1990). Self-mutilation in combat-related PTSD. American Journal of Psychiatry, 147, 123-124.

Whitlock, J., & Knox, K.L. (2007). The relationship betwen self-injurious behavior and suicide in a young adult population. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 161, 634-640.

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