IMG_0527You may have read this article or even heard of someone who has engaged in self-harm or also known as “non-suicidal self-injury” (NSSI). When I was teaching, self-harm was one of the top cases that our school counsellors and teachers often reported.  In fact, it is actually a rising trend; it was reported in the local news in 2008, 2012 and just recently. This act is, indeed, very terrifying and it is worse if it happens to your child. However, while many of us are quick to dismiss it easily as a ‘cry for help‘ or ‘attention seeking‘, science explains why this act of self-harm actually causes feelings of pleasure in our children.

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Acts of Self-Harm

Here, we defined self-harm as literally making small cuts on his or her body, usually the arms and legs. It is an act where the child injures themselves on purpose by making scratches or cuts on their body with a sharp object  enough to break the skin and make it bleed . It seems as if your child is suicidal and honestly, its appearances will terrify any parent.

Some may cut themselves on their wrists, arms, legs, or bellies. Some people self-injure by burning their skin with the end of a cigarette or lighted match. When cuts or burns heal, they often leave scars or marks. People who injure themselves usually hide the cuts and marks and sometimes no one else knows.

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Who and Why They Self-Harm

It is easy to stereotype wile and rebellious teenagers as the ones who will engage in such acts but the truth is, there is a growing number of studious and quiet girls and boys who are engaging in this act. Self-harm is an act of control where victims feel gives them power over something. Reasons for making them feeling that they have lack of self-control ranges from struggling to live up to expectations and lack of warmth from family. Some may copy these acts from their friends and stick with it as they enjoy the pleasure of cutting. People usually start self-injuring in early adolescence, between the ages of 11 and 15 (though there are some cases where children as young as 5 start hitting themselves repeatedly as well) and most of them report that it calms them and brings a sense of relief. This is most likely to occur in those who have much trouble regulating their emotions.

Science Explains Why They Feel Good in Self-Harm

Researchers conducted a brain imaging study using pictures and temperature to invoke a warmth or heat-pain sensation (set at individual’s threshold) in their participants. Those who have issues coping with emotion have heightened activation of limbic circuitry in response.  The limbic system, also known as the ‘emotional brain‘ as it contains the brain’s reward circuit, is a set of brain structures that supports a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, and long-term memory. When its response is heightened during the act, it means that the brain sense the ‘cutting’ as a reward for physical pain. The amygdala ,which is part of the limbic system, is also inhabited and thus, fear is also inhibited.

Thus, some people cut themselves to provide pain relief from emotional distress due to the inhibitions of some brain regions involved in emotions.