What do you imagine when you hear the phrase “self-injury?” If your first thought is a black garbed teenage girl who is “just trying to get attention,” then this list will surprise you. There is a lot of stigma surrounding the phenomenon of self-harm. Too often self-injurers are judged, ignored, or even mocked. When people do take it seriously, they often assume it is a suicidal gesture. Self-harm can affect virtually any demographic, for a vast number of reasons. Some people do hurt themselves in an attempt to end their lives, but most people who harm themselves don’t want to die.
I have intimate knowledge of self-harm. Though I did “cut” a little as a teenager, due mostly to peer influence, I did not begin the practice in earnest until I was an adult. It became a gesture to combat dissociative PTSD episodes. Next week, I will discuss the relationship between PTSD and self-harm, and my experiences with it. This week, I am providing an introduction to the baffling phenomenon of human self-injury with a research-based article outlining ten of the most common reasons science has discovered that people harm themselves.
Sometimes, the reason people hurt themselves is simply to communicate. Have you ever heard the phrase “talking to him is like hitting my head against the wall?” Most of us have, at some point, tried to have a conversation with someone who just didn’t get it. No matter how hard we tried, the other person just couldn’t-or wouldn’t-understand.
Now imagine that every interaction you have is like that. That’s what it’s like for children, teens, and adults living with aphasia (loss of speech). Aphasia often occurs in autism and other neurological disorders, or sometimes as the result of a brain injury. People who live with it can feel and think clearly, but are unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings through language. When they try to talk, nobody understands them.
For those living with aphasia, especially teens with autism, mild to moderate self-injury becomes a way of telling others that they need something. This kind of self-injury usually manifests as literally hitting their heads against walls, biting themselves, or violently scratching themselves.
Even people with normal communication skills may sometimes self-harm to convey a message. Teenagers are especially prone to becoming so emotionally overwhelmed that they are unsure how to express themselves, even though they physically can. Stereotypes usually develop in response to something real, and yes, some people harm themselves for attention. Cutting and other forms of self-injury become a way of telling their friends and families that something is wrong when they don’t know how to ask for help. Instead of mocking them though, why don’t we try answering their call for support?
Milder forms of dissociation, such as found in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or some personality disorders, include derealization (the uncanny feeling that life is fake or unreal), or depersonalization (the feeling that ones body or identity is not his own). Severe dissociation occurs in Dissociative Identity Disorder, and results in the formation of multiple sentient personalities existing within one body.
Dissociation related self-injury occurs for two different reasons, but both are related to processing trauma. In Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, dissociation is usually a temporary state. During a PTSD dissociative episode, the physical body becomes numb. Cutting, scratching, or otherwise hurting oneself can help return bodily sensation and end the episode.
People also dissociate and self harm in an attempt to process a traumatic event. This occurs most often in people who have been physically or sexually abused. When trauma occurs, the human brain reverts to a state of hyperarousal, commonly known as the”fight or flight” response. Because of this, traumatic memories become distorted and partially or wholly forgotten. When this happens, the traumatized person may subconciously try to “re-enact” the pain as a way of controlling the abuse and curtailing the cycle of helplessness begun during the initial attack.
Hyperarousal can happen for a number of reasons. When a person develops PTSD in reaction to trauma, for example, the adrenal system becomes “frozen” into a reactive state, leading to biological hyperarousal which in turn leads to feelings of fearfulness, anxiety, and fatigue. People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and related conditions also experience hyperarousal.
Certain forms of self harm, especially cutting skin, promote the production of mu-opioid neurochemicals which correct hyperarousal. This leads to feelings of relaxation and well-being. Likewise, ingesting powerful ‘downers,’ such as alcohol, heroin, and other opiates or benzodiazepines, will also relax these systems. While some of these drugs are prescribed for that purpose, many people abuse them and ingest them in harmful quantities, which is considered a form of self-injury.
If a nurse injects a pain patient with morphine, the patient experiences relief from his pain. If a regular, healthy person injects morphine, however, he will experience intense euphoria. Similarly, if someone whose nervous system is already properly regulated, rather than being in a state of hyperarousal, cuts or otherwise harms himself, he will experience pleasure. It is usually an intense, short-lived rush of physical pleasure followed by a period of intense relaxation. Because natural opioids are habit-forming, just like synthetic opioids, people who self-harm for pleasure can actually become addicted to the act.
If you think this one is bogus, look around. Tons of people harm themselves to alter their appearance. In most cases, people are actually hiring someone else to hurt them, but it’s a willing engagement with pain so it counts as self-harm.
Body modification has been practiced by humans for thousands of years. The earliest known tattoo belonged to a 10,000 year old human dubbed “Otzi the Iceman.” Ancient Egyptians were known tattooers, and many tribal people around the globe have historically engaged in body piercing and scarification (the act of cutting or burning skin to create permanent, designed scarring).
For a while, these practices went “underground” and were associated only with criminals, but in the past couple decades, tattoos, piercing, and scarification have become increasingly popular. These are not the only form of beautified self-harm, however. Cosmetic surgery is a well documented practice of the upper-class, popularized by celebrities who engage in a variety of invasive surgeries to augment their appearance. I doubt someone getting a nose job or breast implants would consider herself a “self-injurer,” but she is, in fact, hiring a surgeon to cut her body simply to make herself look better.
To understand this phenomenon, we have to look to the animal kingdom. We are all aware of the “food chain,” and how some creatures predate upon others. But many of the “food animals,” the ones lower on the food chain, don’t simply give in to their fate. They fight it, and often, they fight it by pretending to be scarier than they are.
Humans do this too. In street terms, it’s called ‘posturing.’ Just as a puffer fish may blow itself up to frighten a predator, humans also manipulate their appearance to seem tougher. But people can’t make themselves bloat three times their size. Instead, humans make themselves seem tough and scary by proving they can endure more pain than others.
Seriously, people hurt themselves to appear more threatening. Whether it’s doing a painful amount of pull-ups in a row, punching oneself, or even cutting oneself, people sometimes create a spectacle of self-harm to protect themselves. Those scenes in movies where guys take turns punching themselves in the face harder and harder may be jokes, but they are parodies of real behaviors. Maybe the people who do this are partially playing into mental illness stigma too; if a guy can convince the people around him that he is truly insane, they’ll think he’s capable of anything. (Cue sarcastic eye roll).
7. Social Acceptance
Science has long declared that social behaviors are contagious. Everyone learns just about everything by copying the people around them, from speech to social behaviors. ‘Mirroring,’ as it’s sometimes called, its part of being a social species. It’s built into us from our tribal roots as part of our survival instinct, but now that society, and our communal needs, have advanced, it is not always healthy.
All people, but especially teenagers, copy their peers. If someone in an adult social group is self-harming, his peers are likely to seek ways to support him. But when teenagers do it, their friends are more likely to engage as well. If it sounds unrealistic, check out childhood development charts. The teenage years are a time when kids develop independence from their parents, but rely heavily upon social acceptance. Find a group of teens with one cutter in it, and you’ll find a group of teens with multiple cutters in it.
8. Brain Chemistry
Sometimes self-harm is caused by a neurochemical imbalance. University of Washington scientists conducted a study of adolescent female self-harmers and found that a large number of them had lower than average serotonin levels. They also displayed heart rhythm abnormalities that are commonly associated with depression, anxiety, or Borderline Personality Disorder. Although the self-injurious behavior displayed by the participants in this study varied, 82% of the girls in the study were ‘cutters.’ A ‘cutter’ is defined as a person who, on more than one occasion, uses a sharp object such as a razor blade, knife, or even a paper clip to incise her own skin.
It doesn’t take a scientist to recognize that intentionally harming oneself is a sign of depression, but these findings are significant because they indicate a biological cause for some self-harming behaviors.
Self-harm and punishment go way, way back. Ol’ buds, you could say. Or maybe more of a love-hate relationship. In any case, they’ve been a pair for quite a while.
Self-flagellation, the act of whipping oneself, is usually associated with early Christians, though it actually dates back prior to the advent of Christianity. Self-flagellation was used among clergy as a way of punishing themselves for impious acts and to make amends with God. During the European Plague, many Christians self-flagellated in the hopes of serving themselves with enough Divine retribution to bypass illness.
Prehistoric and indigenous cultures also performed self-mutilation or voluntary ritual whippings. Reasons included initiation, promoting fertility, banishing evil spirits, or other forms of purification.
Today, religious self-harm is far less common. While Christian-based self-flagellation is still practiced by a few devout radicals, the majority of self-punishment is secular. Abuse survivors sometimes punish themselves to re-enact their traumatic experience, or to cope with disappointing the expectations of emotionally controlling family members.
Some people self-harm, or recruit a willing partner to harm them, in order to gain sexual release. This behavior is usually associated with the Bondage or Sado-Masochism fetishes. The type of harm inflicted during sex can range from mild spanking to actual strangulation, and everything in between.
For people who engage in these behaviors, pain brings them sexual pleasure. The reason for this is mostly unknown, though the release of pain combating neurochemicals certainly plays a role. Some psychologists believe early childhood trauma or other abuse can be attributed to the formation of pain-based sexual fetishes, though this is not always the case and many members of the BDSM fetish communities are offended by the correlation. Although sexual self-injury, like self-injury for the purposes of aesthetics, is generally considered more acceptable by society, it can be truly harmful when taken to an extreme.
For example, some fetishists enjoy beating their genitalia, or being left alone bound and gagged for hours. Practices such as these, when performed by inexperienced people, may cause permanent bodily damage or even death. Sometimes people engage in these behaviors because they have been severely sexually abused and have no other way to relate to their sexual selves, or because they are angry at their bodies for a number of reasons, such as because they are transgendered and not properly supported by their community. In all of these cases, professional help is needed, whether that means visiting an experienced sex worker who can navigate a sexual fetish without causing permanent damage, or a psychologist who can help abuse victims or transgendered teens cope with their confusing feelings.
Do you know any reasons for human self-injury which you’ve heard of or experienced that you would add to the list? Leave them in the comments. And don’t forget to tune in next week for a more personal, in-depth article that explores PTSD, dissociation, and self-harm. You can subscribe on the homepage sidebar if you want to make sure not to miss the post!
Please also take a moment to share this post on a social platform or two. We can only end mental illness stigma and dispel myths surrounding self-injury if these facts are shared. Thank you!
Til next time.