Cutting and other forms of self-mutilation may be hard for many people to understand. People who self-harm are more likely to have an underlying emotional problems, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). According to a study by German researchers, people with BPD may engage in self-injury because they get a sense of emotional relief from physical pain.
BPD is a complex set of deeply rooted personality traits, the result of past stressors and the cause of significant distress in a person’s life. Characterized by relationship instability, problems with dealing with anger, suicidal thoughts, destructive behaviors, identity disturbance, chronic emptiness or boredom, and abandonment issues, BPD is the most commonly diagnosed personality disorder. Some estimates project that about 2 percent of the general population suffers from BPD, including 6 million people in the United States – that’s more than the population of Rhode Island. Many who suffer from BPD engage in what is considered “self-harming” behaviors that, by most standards, are considered painful and hurtful.
For their study, researchers connected about 50 females to functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment to record brain activity while they viewed pictures that prompted neutral and negative emotions. During this test, the participants were also periodically subjected to heat pain. Results demonstrated that those who suffered from BPD showed more intense brain activity than people with clean mental health when shown pictures that were either neutral or negative. When participants were subjected to heat pain while viewing these same neutral or negative pictures, those with BPD showed less stimulation—that is, less brain activity indicative of pain—than their counterparts.
These findings support previous research and anecdotes that conclude that those suffering from BPD may use the pain and stimulation associated with self-injury as a method of distracting and relieving themselves from emotional suffering. It looks as if self-injury serves as a coping mechanism for the intense emotional turmoil that individuals suffering from BPD tend to experience.
The new findings help practitioners, friends, and those actually suffering from BPD to better understand the nature of how each of us have different ways of processing and tolerating emotional pain. Self-injurious behavior does not mean the sufferer is suicidal, but it does mean the person needs emotional help. Hurting oneself is not a healthy coping mechanism, and self-mutilators are encouraged to seek support and find more productive forms of BPD treatment.