The second part of a discussion about self-harm. The first post gave details of my own history of cutting myself: the how’s, when’s and why’s. This post is about the science of the behaviour, which I tried to convey during my impromptu ‘confession’ to my parents a few weeks ago (the rough transcript of said confession to be published later) .
The Science Behind Self-harm
Now, before you get excited, or worried, depending on your bent, I am not going to pretend I know Ze Science involved. What I will say, is that I know that there is a biological-chemical process that makes the behaviour rewarding. Here I’m concentrating on the chemical rather than psychological effects of injury, though in reality of course it’s all interrelated.
This is my simplistic understanding of that process:
1.) The brain’s filing system
The brain gives precedence to (what it perceives as) the strongest injury in the body. Imagine you have a headache that’s bugging you. You’re focusing on it, so it’s distracting you. Now imagine that you walk out of your office building (yeah, forgot to mention you are at work, sorry ’bout that), with your headache, and you trip over a flagstone, breaking your ankle (it’s shaping up to be a great day, obviously – maybe not the day to buy that lottery ticket). You are on the floor, your ankle is throbbing. You don’t register the headache anymore. The pain in your ankle is the only pain you are thinking about, especially as you get up and try to walk on it. Your brain is telling you that your ankle is injured; the pain is a warning that you shouldn’t be moving it.
The same principle seems to apply to psychic pain. Psychological disorders cause intense psychological pain. So, giving your body a physical injury takes the attention away from the psychological injury. The effect is temporary. Cuts heal etc. But, for myself at least, giving myself that ‘break’ from the mental anguish, has enabled me to temporarily stop overwhelming psychological pain.
Now, although I’m sure I’ve read the above description of how the brain deals with injury, I can’t actually give you a source to back it up. I won’t be winning any journalistic awards any time soon then ;)… Obviously there is a psychological element in the pain-experience (whether the pain is from twisting an ankle or a chronic condition, like arthritis), but I did think there was an additional theory that the brain prioritizes pain signals when there is more than one injury to the body. If anyone recognizes this idea or knows where reliable source info can be found please let me know. You will make me look good. If I’m talking shite and I’ve got it wrong, also let me know. You won’t make me look good, but it’s better than letting me talk nonesense on the internet.
2.) The endorphin release
The second biological effect is the endorphin release. Endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers, are released when the body is hurt. I believe their mechanism of action resembles opiates. So cutting (or banging, burning and any of the other self-harming behaviours) can also calm you down via that mechanism.
Stay tuned for part 3 which is in my draft pile somewhere…