Chemistry of Cutting

Take a moment and hold your breath as long as you are able. Hold it until every bit of your body screams for air. No really, do it. I will wait. How did it feel when you finally surrendered to your body’s desire and breathed in again? That rush of air into your lungs brings a taste of the temporary relief brought to emotional stress by self-injury.

But why? Why on earth does causing physical pain to one’s body bring relief to emotional pain? Self-injury may not make sense to someone who has little familiarity with the struggle. Many students habitually engage in self-injury, even though they are not able to explain why it brings alleviation to their stress.

In my previous article, Hidden Hurting, I described many possible motivations as to why students may self-injure. Another strong cause that leads students to repeat this behavior is due to the brain’s physiological response to pain that brings relief in place of anxiety or distress, which, in some cases, can ultimately lead to a chemical dependence on self-injury.    

Psychologist Lori Plante describes the opponent-process theory in her book, Bleeding to Ease the Pain, as a theory for explaining self-injury: “[This theory] points to the brain’s constant thriving for homeostasis, or equilibrium, as the fundamental basis for why emotional highs are often followed by equally intensive lows… Thus, the act of self-injury seems to invite a sense of relief and well-being in the aftermath of pain.” The brain is striving for a balanced emotional state. The chemical response system is constantly trying to balance out extreme highs and lows.

She goes on to explain that when the body feels pain, the brain’s neurochemical response is to release endorphins that serve as natural, internally produced opiates to help the body alleviate the physical pain and distress. Those opiates produce an overreaction that leads to a false high, tricking the brain into believing the emotional pain has lessened bringing a temporary happiness in place of the stress.

Unfortunately, the brain usually does not stop there. After the high, the brain’s chemicals level out again, and the stress returns. The feeling of relief was only temporary, as it did not remove the distressors that were causing the emotional turmoil to begin with. Often the student then falls into shame for what they did to find relief, which leads to additional feelings of failure and self-hatred.

Now trying to balance the original suffering and stress topped with self-hate, the person, desperately seeking relief, returns to self-injury to find relief—thus starting the cycle over. Students become trapped in the cycle of pain, relief, shame, and self-hatred leading to more pain.

In an article in the Journal of Addictions and Offender Counseling, Trevor and Juleen Buser argue that characteristics of this cycle of self-injury fall into the same category of that of other addictive behaviors. They mainly focused on what they called “The three C’s of addiction.”

The first C is Compulsivity, or craving. Buser notes that compulsive behaviors are “habitual behaviors that are precipitated by a desire to avert or alleviate negative emotions.” As previously discussed, self-injury is almost always used as a method to relieve emotional pain when in crisis. Self-injury is generally practiced impulsively as a desperate action to alleviate the stress. This is not something that is usually thought through. Generally, those who self-harm do so on a whim of emotion, rather than a planned out event.

Buser continued, “A second primary component of addiction is the perception of losing Control over a behavior or the use of a substance. Individuals may desire to reduce engagement in the addictive behavior but are unable to carry out these intentions with consistency.”

The majority of self-injurers have tried to stop the behavior many times but are unsuccessful. Many express that they know the habit is harmful and unhealthy, but they are unable to quit. Their brains have developed a craving for the chemical endorphins released when the body senses pain.

Along similar lines comes the third C: Continuing the behavior despite negative consequences. Self-injury only ever brings a short term break from the situation. The emotional pain always comes back as strong or stronger than before; only now, the individual also has the shame of knowing they indulged in the harmful behavior again. Self-harm also leaves scars, which can become a constant reminder of the suffering, the negative behavior, and the shame that followed. These and other negative consequences can encourage the person to stop, but they can also cause more stress—continuing the cycle.

It is possible for those who self-injure build up a tolerance requiring more pain to achieve the same level of opiates that allow the emotional relief as priorly achievable with less pain. Their body gets used to the endorphins, and requires more endorphins to achieve the same results. Students are forced to increase the depth of the cutting, the heat of the burns, or the number of beatings before they get the chemical response their brain is begging for.

It is hard to determine what level of pain is needed to relieve emotional stress, as there are differing levels of emotional stress. Still, many self-injurers tell of the need to use increasingly larger amounts of pain to achieve the peace their brains desire.

Although self-injury has been shown to have many addictive tendencies, not everyone who engages in self-injury becomes addicted - just as not everyone who has a drink becomes addicted to alcohol. Still, it is an extremely dangerous temptation to mess around with and ought to be avoided at all costs.

A fellow student who has struggled with self-injury for several years described the frustration by saying: “I want to stop so badly. I know this isn’t a healthy way to cope, but I can’t stop. It’s like a monster I cannot tame no matter how badly I want to. He always desires more.”

Regardless of whether or not a student becomes addicted to self-injury or not, still, each injury can produce a chemical response from the brain bringing temporary emotional relief. Self-injury needs to be treated differently with this information in mind. Self-injury ought to be treated similar to an dependency on alcohol, pornography, or other addiction. We must see self-injury for the problem it is and help those who struggle with it accordingly.