Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Self-Injury as an Inborn Fail-Safe

Where do we get the idea to eat or have sex? Maybe we don't. As Pinker argues, we're not a blank slate. Perhaps the impulse to engage in self-injury when under extreme emotional distress is also inborn.

We are starting to understand the havoc stress wreaks on the body. We are also starting to understand the strong endogenous physiological calming effect self-injury prompts. Perhaps the ancient Chinese acupuncturists have understood the positive effects of small non-impulsive doses of self-injury on the body for ages.

I wonder if self-injury acts almost like an inoculation - when given a small amount of manageable physical adversity, the body's soothing and contentment system is able to overcompensate and fortify itself. Maybe the body intuitively knows to default to self-injury under periods of stress because there are dramatic and sudden decrease anxiety due to increases in endogenous calming agents, being that stress is particularly harmful to the body. [There's something about stress triggering autoimmune diseases here that should be looked at. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that Benadryl can be used both as an antianxiety as well as an antihistamine.]

After all, humans are not the only animals that engage in self-injury. My first research project (cited in TIME here) mentions that a certain percentage of people report getting the idea to engage in self-injury from an outside source; however, the other side of that is that some people report never having learned the idea from anyone. Perhaps it is, in fact, an inborn impulse we have that is defaulted to in times of stress because it is protective to the body against stress. This is not to say, of course, that some people don't get the idea to cut from other people. Surely this must be the case. But what about the people who spontaneously start cutting without outside influence? How can that be explained?

I'm beginning to think that the impulse to hurt oneself is a hardwired fail-safe.


Courtney said...

I agree that human beings are not born as blank slates. Thinking about self-harm in an evolutionary context, it makes sense. If early humans couldn't function through bouts of intense anxiety, they would most likely not survive. Maybe the ones who injured themselves in response to extreme anxiety were better able to survive stress in the short term. Obviously this isn't a good long-term solution, but for getting through short, intermittent periods of extreme anxiety it would work. Assuming this trait has a biological basis, these early humans would pass it on to their offspring, who would naturally fall to self-injury in times of stress.By the way, is there an evolutionary branch of psychology?

On a personal note regarding your last paragraph, I've been harming myself since I can remember. I started young hitting and biting myself. At the age of 7 I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and would use the needles to stick myself excessively. I didn't start cutting and burning until I was 12 or 13, but it just seemed like a good idea at the time. I'm honestly not sure if I got the idea from an external source or not. Now at 21 I'm working to give up the habits I've had my entire life and move on with more healthy alternatives.

Tara Deliberto said...

Hi Courtney,

Thanks so much for reading the blog and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. There is, in fact, a branch of evolutionary psychology; however, to my knowledge the researchers in this field have not yet looked at self-injury in this way.

Like you, many people I have spoken to also report not getting the idea from a specific source. For right now, the etiology of self-injury remains a mystery.

I'm very happy to hear that you're working on this. As I've mentioned numerous times on this blog, Dialectical Behavior Therapy really is so helpful in the event you haven't looked into the treatment.

Thanks so much again for the post.

Courtney said...

I remember you mentioning DBT earlier, and recently my psychiatrist recommended the same thing. I looked into it and found the Atlanta DBT Center. From what I can tell, this is quite time consuming, and I am concerned about being a full-load student and trying to commit to DBT fully.

Tara Deliberto said...

Recent research that has not yet been published has found that DBT skills training groups alone (without individual therapy as well) have been helpful in reducing destructive behaviors like self-injury. The groups typically last 1.5 hours and the homework is really not time consuming at all. I co-lead a DBT group now in NYC and a very common comment of the members is they wished they had started DBT earlier. I would say the benefits far outweigh the 1.5 hours of time it takes per week. I strongly encourage it.

John said...

Just a quick question which animals are also engaging in self injury?
Thanks for the blog post...

Tara Deliberto said...

Hey John, thanks for reading. For instance, non-human primates have been known to tear out bits of fur, particularly when neglected. Other animals may bite themselves as well. I write a little bit more about self-injury in animals in the post entitled "Why Do People Cut Themselves?"

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