Rutgers study analyzes self-injury, finds teens hurt themselves on purpose to feel pain
Using data collected from a smartphone application, a Rutgers study found that teenagers hurt themselves on purpose to feel physical pain.
The study, titled “The Dynamic of Pain During Nonsuicidal Self-Injury (NSSI),” was conducted by Edward Selby, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Amy Kranzler, who received her Ph.D. from Rutgers, Kara Fehling, a graduate student, and Janne Lindqvist, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Its purpose was to understand self-inflicted injuries in the real world among teenagers and other members of the youth community.
“We tried to focus on pain during self-injury, and what we found was that self-injurers, most of the time, were actually trying to feel pain,” Selby said. “So, this led us to conclude that part of inflicting self-injury on purpose is trying to feel physical pain, because physical pain helps distract them from emotional distress.”
In order to collect data for the study, members of the research team created a smartphone application. Selby said the application interacted with recruited self-injurers from the youth community multiple times throughout the day for two weeks, asking them questions about their self-injury experiences, thoughts, feelings and interactions with other people.
The research team found that self-injurers tend to see that pain gets substantial. When they begin cutting, they feel a good amount of pain. Selby said the less pain they feel, the more they are inclined to cut in order to regain the pain experience.
When distinguishing the differences between the way males and females feel self-injury, Selby said women tend to be more elevated in emotions during self-injury, and that the data shows they are more prone to cutting. Self-injury is still common among males, though they tend to self-inflict pain by punching themselves and hitting their heads on walls instead.
“When we talk about nonsuicidal self-injury, that refers to any behavior that a person does intentionally to cause pain to their body in a direct way, and the most common form of NSSI is cutting, but it can include a range of behaviors, such as burning, scratching or hitting yourself with an object,” Kranzler said.
Individuals would engage in this form of behavior because it served as a form of interpersonal communication to help get their needs met, a way to halt association, feel something “real” and inflict self-punishment, Kranzler said.
While the research team is not sure how self-injury regulates emotions, they are aware of the consistent evidence across studies: Engaging in the practice can help in the short term to reduce intense negative emotion and increase positive emotion. Kranzler said one of the hypotheses of the study suggests that pain plays a role in helping to “short circuit” intense spirals of negative emotions.
A part of the study explained that there are very different experiences of pain during self-injury. Some report that they do not experience pain while engaging in NSSI, while others report that they do and engage in self-harm for specifically that reason, Kranzler said.
When asked about what the study implies for clinicians and the future, Kranzler said: “We need to do a thorough job of understanding the many reasons of why people engage in self-injury, and the many different experiences of pain that they have when they self-injure. It suggests that there isn’t one uniform experience of self-injury, but that it is a complex behavior that may serve many different purposes.”