Observing Self-Mutilation

My work as a clinical health psychologist has provided exposure to individuals who are suffering from intense forms of emotional distress. I’ve had the opportunity to work on an impatient psychiatric unit. This provided exposure to witnessing multiple manifestations of psychiatric distress.

Interviewing young women who have engaged in self-mutilation was initially very jarring. Many were extraordinarily self-conscious about the consequences of their self-destructive behaviors.

I couldn’t help but think that their bodies looked like roadmaps, to a most dismal destination. There are multiple misconceptions about why someone would intentionally hurt themselves. I’ve worked with healthcare professionals who have erroneously concluded that patients simply are seeking attention by engaging in self-harm.

I spent hours talking to these young women about why they intentionally chose to harm themselves. Several had repeatedly cut themselves. Many were struggling with overwhelmingly severe depression. They said that they literally felt “dead inside.” Feeling pain, therefore, was actually preferable to feeling nothing at all.

Once they had begun to engage in self-mutilation, it almost always became a highly addictive behavior. My experience as a clinical health psychologist has powerfully reinforced that all behaviors serve a purpose, whether easily apparent, or more challenging to ascertain. The young women with whom I spoke said that, most definitely, they felt better after they hurt themselves.

Biochemical explanations for these seemingly contradictory results exist. Cutting releases endogenous opioids, or endorphins, as well as endocannabinoids. Ironically enough, engaging in self-harm is a way to soothe oneself for some individuals suffering from emotional distress.

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