The Neuroscience Behind Self-Injury

If you’re reading this, hopefully you’ve read the previous two posts regarding WHY one might self-injury and what you can do to help.  Perhaps you cognitively understand the reasons in the previous post, but can’t seem to wrap your mind around how someone could put themselves through this.  Don’t worry, you’re not alone.  Self-Injury is often referred to as an addictive behavior because the brain responds the same way as it does when a drug enters the body.  The three main neurochemicals that are released when one uses substances, are the same neurochemicals released when one self-injures and in fact, they all serve a very real purpose in our bodies.  As you can see, this makes it very hard for someone to just quit self-injuring because they are getting a really impactful response from it that serves them in regulating their emotions, however unhealthy of emotional regulation it may be. 

The three main neurochemicals in the brain that are involved when someone self-injures include:

a.     Serotonin- Calms us down,  (calms anxiety and depression) calms impulsive behavior

b.     Endorphins-  Numbs us out, helps us not feel pain

c.     Dopamine- Feeling good, feeling pleasure

Therefore when someone self-injures they get a sense of calmness, numbing, and then pleasure. Furthermore, when people are abused or have heightened levels of anxiety, they typically develop dopamine receptive sensitivity which makes them more prone to impulsivity and anxiety which in turn, makes them more prone to self-injury to cope with those unwanted feelings.

 So, as you can see, telling someone who has regulated their emotions with self-injury to “just stop cutting yourself” is about as effective as telling someone who struggles with alcohol to stare at a bottle and not take a sip. 

*See previous post for strategies to help someone who is self-injuring*

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Kimberly Presley, MSW, LCSW

To learn more about the neuroscience behind self-harming, visit the Taylor Counseling Group Blog.

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