Can Physical Pain Ease Emotional Pain?

The Mayo Clinic says that “Non-suicidal self-injury, often simply called self-injury, is the act of deliberately harming the surface of your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It’s typically not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.” .

Does self-injury help to erase the emotional pain? Generally, the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders 5 attributes some self-injury to Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD). Two OCD self-injury diagnoses are trichotillomania (pulling out one’s hair until the behavior causes hair loss and social impairment) and excoriation (which involves skin-picking until lesions are caused that are not allowed to heal creating medical concerns). The Mayo Clinic also names cutting of the skin, carving names or symbols in the skin, piercing the skin with sharp objects, hitting or punching one’s self, burning one’s self with lit matches or cigarettes, and scratching of the skin as other types of self-injury.

Some self-injury is more common to children and teenagers such as cutting and piercing. Other self-injury concerns are more likely to appear in adulthood such as hair-pulling and burning one’s self. The behavior appears to temporarily distract the individual from emotional pain, but the effect of replacing emotional pain with acute physical pain may become cyclical producing a compulsion to repeat the behavior to maintain a sense of relief. Some self-injury behavior may have an attention-seeking purpose. Mostly, the practice is related to relieving anxiety and is compulsive in much the same way that substance addiction is compulsive.

Treatment includes therapy, medication and, when the behavior becomes more dangerous to the individual, hospitalization.  Individuals who are experiencing the phenomenon of self-injury or caregivers who are witnessing such behavior in a loved one should seek the advice of a therapist or physician.