Richard G. Petty, MD

Cutting and Self-injury

There’s an extremely disturbing trend: ever-increasing numbers of young people who are cutting themselves. Once rare, and something usually seen only in people with serious psychiatric illness, many school children encourage and goad each other into doing it, and there are websites dedicated to cutting, on which young people compare notes and even give each other advice on how to conceal what they are doing, by cutting themselves in places like the lower back.

We have been offered a great many explanations for this worrying development, but not much in the way of evidence. We know that most people who cut themselves are female adolescents or young adults, and apart from the obvious physical dangers, there is evidence that this behavior may lead to a more serious psychological condition called Borderline Personality Disorder. This can be a serious problem that carries a high risk of suicide. It is also of some theoretical interest, because there seem to be genuine cultural differences in borderline personality disorder. An estimated 5.8 million to 8.7 million Americans, mostly women, suffer from it, but it is far less common in most of Western Europe and Australia. Research over the last decade has indicated that the condition is becoming more common in these regions. People with the borderline personality disorder have a wide spectrum of difficulties that are marked by emotional instability, difficulty in maintaining close relationships, eating disorders, impulsivity, chronic uncertainty about life goals and addictive behaviors such as using drugs and alcohol. They also have major impact on the medical system by being among the highest users of emergency and in-patient medical services. Glen Close’s character Alex Forrest in the movie Fatal Attraction, had some of the features that we might expect in some with borderline personality disorder.

Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle have reported that adolescent girls who engage in cutting behavior have lower levels of the chemical transmitter serotonin in their blood. They also have reduced levels of activity in the parasympathetic nervous system as measured by what is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia, a measure of the ebb and flow of heart rate as we breath. Low levels of this measure are typically found in people who are anxious or depressed. The study included 23 girls aged 14 to 18, who engaged in what psychologists call “parasuicidal” behavior. Participants were included if they had engaged in three or more self-harming behaviors in the previous six months or five or more such behaviors in their lifetime. The comparison group consisted of an equal number of girls of the same ages who did not engage in this behavior.

In line with previous research, the adolescents in the parasuicide group reported far more incidents of self-harming behavior than did their parents.

The findings of low serotonin and low parasympathetic activity support the idea that the inability to regulate emotions and impulsivity can trigger self-harming behavior. The primary problem is an inability to manage their emotions: the people who cut themselves have excessively strong emotional reactions and they have extreme difficulty in controlling those emotions. Their self-harming behavior may serve to distract them from these emotions.

A characteristic feature of borderline personality disorder is not just self-injurious behavior but also stress-induced reduction of pain perception. Reduced pain sensitivity has been experimentally confirmed in patients with the condition. The increasing incidence of the condition in Europe is attracting many European investigators and colleagues from Mannheim in Germany have recently traced the neurological circuits involved in this stress-induced reduced pain perception.

There is good evidence that people who cut themselves are more likely to have been victims of sexual abuse or violence as children, though that obviously does not mean that every person who harms themselves has had something bad happen to them in childhood. Sadly the research has become more complex because of the numbers of people who have been given false memories of abuse by well-meaning psychologists.

Treating people who cut themselves, whether or not they have borderline personality disorder can be very challenging. The first thing is to treat any underlying mood or anxiety disorder. A combination of medications and psychotherapy is normally used, with people making claims for the value of different types of therapy. Many therapists also say that they have helped people who cut themselves with tapping therapies, acupuncture, homeopathy and qigong. I’ve not been able to find any credible research evidence to support the use of those therapies, though I’ve also seen some success stories.

We also have the puzzle about why cutting and borderline personality disorder seems to have been less common in other parts of the world and are now increasing. There is research to show that it’s not just a matter of recognition or of calling the illness something else in Europe. I have a friend who is a senior academic at an Ivy League University, and an expert on borderline personality disorder. During a sabbatical in Scotland some 15 years ago, he could not find a single case. This matters, because if we can identify what’s changed, we may have some clues about treatment. There are hundreds of candidates, including environmental stress, diet and toxins.

There’s an important new study in which 13 children with autism showed marked improvement in some of their challenging behaviors when they were given 1.5gms of omega-3 fatty acids each day. This was only a six week study, but it needs to be replicated using larger numbers. It is also important to be alert to the possibility that some makes of omega-3 fatty acids on the market contain mercury. The one that we have found best so far has been OmegaBrite. It will also be useful to see if dietary supplementation will help self-injurious behavior in other types of people.

Here is a list of some of the better information sites about self-harm.

The key to success with helping complex problems, as I point out in great detail in Healing, Meaning and Purpose, is a comprehensive approach:

Combinations are Key

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


3 Responses to “Cutting and Self-injury”
  1. SD says:

    What evidence exists that “this behavior may lead to a more serious psychological condition called Borderline Personality Disorder.”

  2. Richard Petty says:

    Thank you very much for the question, which I think is so important that I shall expand into an article.

    In a nutshell, self-cutting is a symptom that can be caused by a large number of internal imbalances, e.g. trauma, emotional turmoil, anxiety. Few things that get labeled as “illnesses” arise fully formed. Most develop piece by piece.

    So someone with heart trouble may just start getting more and more tired, then getting short of breath and then developing chest pain, before finally the full illness declares itself.

    Similarly cutting can be one of the early signs of borderline personality disorder. Clearly not everyone who cuts themselves develops the problem but many do. The results of longitudinal studies have prodcued very different results, so it’s not very intelligent to try giving someone odds.

    But the important point is that the risk of going on to develop something worse, is the reason for doing everything possible to help a person from progressing.

    Let me know if you’d like some references.

    All the best,


  3. SD says:


    I think I misunderstood the
    original point.

    There is a difference between something being an early sign of a disorder and leading to a disorder, as the latter implies causality.

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