[emotional] benefits of NSSI and I was looking at the
motivations behind it.”
While over time their interests and investigations have
converged, when they first discovered each other’s work, “we
were like, ‘Oh, this makes so much sense!’” Hooley adds. “This is
how the various findings fit together. It was very exciting.”
Franklin started his investigation with one of the central
questions in the field: Why would people report feeling better
after hurting themselves?
“It seemed very strange to me, and to a lot of other people,”
says Franklin. Most studies on the topic had relied on self-
reports, “but I wanted to look at this experimentally and
biologically to see if it was really true.”
In a 2010 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology,
Franklin and colleagues used a task that measured people’s
defensive eye-blink responses before and after they dipped their
hands into ice-cold water. The results indicated that self-injurers
do in fact feel better afterward, he found.
A second finding was more surprising.
“Everyone else reported feeling better, too,” he says.
That is, healthy controls showed exactly the same degree of
physiological defensiveness and subsequent physiological relief
as those who engaged in self-injury. In a 2013 paper in Clinical
Psychological Science, Franklin’s team replicated the finding
and also showed that most people had equivalent changes in
positive emotions in response to shocking stimuli.
Franklin then turned to the pain literature to see if he could
gain more understanding. There, he discovered something
described by psychologists 70 years ago: a phenomenon called
pain offset relief. According to this concept, virtually everyone
experiences an unpleasant physical reaction to a painful
stimulus. Removing the stimulus does not return the individual
to their pre-stimulus state, however. Rather, it leads them into a
short but intense state of euphoria.
Self-injury is more common than most people realize, although the incidence has begun to stabilize over the last five years, according to psychologist Janis Whitlock, PhD,
who heads the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and
Recovery ( www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu).
The condition — clinically known as non-suicidal self-injury or NSSI — is characterized by deliberate self-inflicted
harm that isn’t intended to be suicidal. People who self-harm
may carve or cut their skin, burn themselves, bang or punch
objects or themselves, embed objects under their skin, or
engage in myriad other behaviors that are intended to cause
themselves pain but not end their lives. (For the most part,
tattooing and piercing are not considered NSSI because they
are culturally sanctioned forms of expression, says Whitlock.)
The most frequent sites of self-injury are the hands, wrists,
stomach and thighs, though self-injurers may hurt themselves
anywhere on the body. Results can be serious: About a third of
students reporting NSSI in two college studies said they had
hurt themselves so badly that they should have been seen by
a medical professional, but only 5 percent sought treatment,
according to a random sample of students in eight colleges
and universities reported in a 2011 article by Whitlock and
colleagues in the Journal of American College Health.
Overall, about 15 percent of college students in that sample
had engaged in NSSI at least once, that team also found.
As for adolescents, about 17 percent had engaged in NSSI
at least once, according to an international meta-analysis of
52 studies, conducted by psychologist Jennifer Muehlenkamp,
PhD, of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire and colleagues
(Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health).
Reported self-injury is much less common in adults —
about a 5 percent lifetime rate — and in most children.
Overall, about 1. 3 percent of youngsters ages 5 to 10 self-injure,
though rates climb significantly if the child has a diagnosed
anxiety disorder or chronic mental distress, studies show.
Young white females tend to represent the public’s perception
of NSSI, but at least 35 percent and as many as half of self-
injurers may be male, studies also show. The number is
uncertain in part because males present differently from females
and may, therefore, be underreported, Whitlock says. Females
are more likely to engage in self-cutting, she says, while males
are more prone to deliberately bruising themselves, hurting
themselves while taking a substance, or having others hurt them.
Demographic research shows that people self-injure
regardless of race or socioeconomic status, but that sexual
minority status may put young people more at risk. More gay
or bisexual males report self-injury than heterosexual males,
and bisexual females are especially vulnerable: About 47
percent of bisexual females (as measured by their ratings on
the Kinsey scale on sexual orientation) self-injure, finds the
2011 eight-college review.
In a related vein, young people who are bullied or otherwise
rejected by peers are more likely to self-injure than others.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies by
Laurence Claes, PhD, and colleagues found that among 78
teens, those who were bullied or reported feeling victimized