Updated: Jun 10
Most of us would go to great lengths to avoid pain or any activities/experiences associated with pain.
It makes total sense. If pain is associated with harm and potential death, our instinct is to avoid it. Surely this is vital to the survival of our species?
So, why do many of us engage in behavior like self harm, that causes physical pain, in order to escape emotional pain?
However, despite the physical pain that comes from self harming, many people report that it makes them feel emotionally better[i].
In published research, it’s been reported that self harm often occurs when someone is having very strong negative emotions. This indicates that self harm might help some people cope with these negative feelings.[ii]
People have also reported that the self harm injuries reduce both the unwanted feelings and increase wanted feelings[iii] i.e. reduce emotional pain and increase more positive emotions.
These studies have confirmed these reports by showing that the pain may increase physiological indicators of good feelings and reduce physiological indicators of bad feelings[iv].
In short, self harm really can make people feel better. This doesn’t seem to fit with the idea that people should always try to avoid pain. However, it does help to explain why so many people participate in self harm.
This begs the question: why does something so painful like self harm actually makes people feel better?
Why Do People Use Self Harm To Relieve Emotional Pain?
One potential explanation for why self harm makes people feel better is called pain offset relief.
To simplify what’s already been researched[v] pain offset relief works by decreasing bad feelings and increasing good feelings.
When a knife hits the skin, it causes pain. Whilst the knife is cutting the skin, there is physical pain. Once the knife is removed or reduced it causes people to feel better. This is pain offset.
It’s important to recognize that this pain offset does not simply return people to the level of negative feelings they were having before; they actually go far beyond that point and move into a more pleasant feeling of RELIEF.
It’s something about the removal of the pain that brings a strong sense of relief in itself. It’s not that the pain in itself makes people feel better, but something about the ending of pain that does.
So, when someone inflicts self harm, and then stops, it’s more that the relief of the pain stopping. This is important because it shows that people who engage in self-injury are not “wired differently” to “enjoy pain.”
Self harm does not just simply act as a distraction from the bad feelings but, when the pain has stopped, it taps into a powerful flood of relief. All of us have access to this powerful relief mechanism.
It’s not that people who engage in self harm either do not feel pain or they like pain (because they are wired differently), it’s that people who engage in self harm tend to be able to endure more pain than others. However, they still feel pain and find the physical pain to be very unpleasant.
Finally, one of the most common reasons people have given for self harming is that it reduces emotional pain and this could be because the physical pain relief that follows self harm tricks the brain into thinking that the emotional pain has also been relieved.
Why Self Harm To Relieve Emotional Pain Doesn’t Work
Self harm is often used as a way to relieve the build up of pressure from distressing thoughts and emotions. This usually gives a relief from the emotional pain. However, this relief is only temporary; the primary reasons for the pain still remains.
After self harming, the person may feel guilt and shame which can continue the cycle.
In the beginning, as there may be a feeling of temporary relief, self harm can become a person’s default way of dealing with life’s problems. And, not unlike taking drugs to deal with difficulties, the effects are only temporary.
This means that it is important to talk to someone as early as possible to get the right support and help. Learning new coping strategies to deal with these difficulties can make it easier to break the cycle of self harm in the long term.
How To Break The Cycle Of Self Harm To Relieve Emotional Pain
Asking for help is very important if for those who are trying to stop self harming. It is important that they talk to someone who will offer support and will help take them to the next step of getting professional help.
For You, The Self Harmer:
When you feel ready to talk, it doesn’t matter whom you talk to as much as making sure it’s with someone you trust and feel comfortable with.
Talking to another person is what is important. You don’t have to deal with this on your own.
It can be hard to ask for help and, when you do, you may feel bad for a while because you’ve shared a secret that you don’t feel good about. But, this soon passes. Part of getting better is learning to trust other people.
If self harming is about relieving pain then it’s important to discover new ways to help you cope with those difficulties. Discovering what makes you happy, isolated sad, angry, vulnerable or strong can help you find new ways of dealing with feelings.
Therapy is a one way to do this and many groups therapies have also been found to be very effective.
[i] Klonsky, E. D. (2007). The functions of deliberate self-injury: A review of the evidence. Clinical Psychology Review, 27(2), 226-239.
[ii] Nock, M. K., & Prinstein, M. J. (2004). A functional approach to the assessment of self-mutilative behavior. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(5), 885.
[iii] Klonsky, E. D. (2009). The functions of self-injury in young adults who cut themselves: Clarifying the evidence for affect-regulation. Psychiatry Research, 166(2), 260-268.
tion and opponent processes from a novel psychophysiological paradigm. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 119(4), 850.
Franklin, J. C., Puzia, M. E., Lee, K. M., Lee, G. E., Hanna, E. K., Spring, V. L., & Prinstein, M. J. (2013). The nature of pain offset relief in nonsuicidal self-injury: A laboratory.
[v] Franklin, J. C., Puzia, M. E., Lee, K. M., Lee, G. E., Hanna, E. K., Spring, V. L., & Prinstein, M. J. (2013). The nature of pain offset relief in nonsuicidal self-injury: A laboratory study. Clinical Psychological Science, 1(2), 110–119.