Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hurts So Good: Neural Clues to the Calming Effects of Self-Harm

Hello Dear Readers,

You may have noticed I’m having a bit of a difficult week. Lonely, stressed out, [not technically] relationship confusion, internal car explodey massive financial/insurance pain in my ass. One day at a time. One thing at a time. I’m trying to do everything I can to not be overwhelmed. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve had self-harming thoughts lately when I’ve been extra stressed out. Nothing I’ve acted on or for any one thing in particular, but the thoughts have been creeping in towards the forefront of my mind without any conscious decision. This used to be an everyday thing. Seriously for 18 years thoughts of cutting were just sort of floating around there in my everyday world. I didn’t usually act on them, but they were there. I was used to them. In the past year or two they diminished greatly. I’ve gone months without thoughts of self-harm and that’s huge for me. It’s just lately they’ve been starting to creep back and now I’m not used to it. I won’t act on it or anything. I have more constructive outlets now, but I did find an interesting article explaining one of the reasons self-harm is so prevalent for those emotionally dysregulated among us. This is the condensed version with all the relevant parts syphoned out, but if you’d like the more scientific methodology and whatnot you can find that HERE. So here ya go.  

... from universities, journals, and other research organizations

Aug. 30, 2010 — The notion that cutting or burning oneself could provide relief from emotional distress is difficult to understand for most people, but it is an experience reported commonly among people who compulsively hurt themselves.

Individuals with borderline personality disorder experience intense emotions and often show a deficiency of emotion regulation skills. This group of people also displays high prevalence rates of self-injurious behavior, which may help them to reduce negative emotional states.

Niedtfeld and colleagues studied the effects of emotional stimuli and a thermal stimulus in people either with or without borderline personality disorder. They conducted an imaging study using picture stimuli to induce negative, positive, or neutral affect and thermal stimuli to induce heat pain or warmth perception. The painful heat stimuli were administered at an individually-set temperature threshold for each subject.

In patients with borderline personality disorder, they found evidence of heightened activation of limbic circuitry in response to pictures evocative of positive and negative emotions, consistent with their reported emotion regulation problems. Amygdala activation also correlated with self-reported deficits in emotion regulation. However, the thermal stimuli inhibited the activation of the amygdala in these patients and also in healthy controls, presumably suppressing emotional reactivity.

Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented, "These data are consistent with the hypothesis that physically painful stimuli provide some relief from emotional distress for some patients with borderline personality disorder because they paradoxically inhibit brain regions involved in emotion. This process may help them to compensate for deficient emotional regulation mechanisms."

The authors note that these results are in line with previous findings on emotional hyperactivity in borderline personality disorder and suggest that these individuals process pain stimuli differently depending on their arousal status.


I don’t know about you, but I find this easily relatable. I didn’t really need neurological imaging and a battery of scientific tests to tell me I feel better emotionally after the experience of physical pain, but it really is a concept that is incredibly misunderstood by people. I personally have (had) a number of different reasons for why I turn to self-harm, but ultimately I think the main goal was to simply find some relief. I’ve always known that I experience pain differently that many people. For one, I’m not afraid of it and I actively seek it when I’m in distress, which seems counterintuitive to basic survival instincts. I also know that my pain tolerance is exceptionally high. Hell I sat through a 22 hour rib tattoo without batting an eye. I’ve long thought the brains of those of us that seek self-harm to relieve that emotional stress may have slightly different hardwiring in our brains. It’s nice to see that my instincts appear to be correct.

Something’s a little crossed in there so that physical pain actually inhibits the experience of emotional turmoil. I find this kind of fascinating, especially when you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint: in situations of extreme duress and injury when most people would panic, it actually has a calming effect for some of us. That could be pretty helpful. Not that I am in any way encouraging this as a means to become more clearheaded. There are certainly more constructive ways to achieve this without risking life and limb, but it’s interesting none-the-less.

What do you think? 

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