Psychological studies link self-harm and addiction, revealing that those who practice self-injury may become addicted to natural neurotransmitters produced in the brain called endorphins. Endorphins are created and released whenever someone self-harms by cutting, bruising, biting or some other physically self-injurious act, such as hair pulling. These neurotransmitters trigger opiate receptors located in the brain, causing those receptors to produce heightened feelings of pleasure, well-being and numbness to pain. Psychiatrists say this natural high is not unlike the highs produced by narcotics, such as cocaine, opium and methamphetamine, which also trigger addictions. After a few self-harming episodes, studies suggest it is possible for a person to become addicted to the resulting and powerful euphoria.
The desire to cope and survive overwhelming emotional pain is often the lure of self-harm and addiction in other forms, whether it be drugs or alcohol. Those susceptible to the addiction of self-harming may include people suffering from depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Doctors distinguish between recreational self-harm and addiction to self-harm, explaining that some teenagers may experiment with self-injury as a daring pastime. A self-harm addict, however, is one who becomes compulsively fixated on performing self-mutilation and self-wounding or becomes totally dependent on self-harming to function and manage daily feelings.
Concealing self-harm and addiction tendencies is typical, doctors say, making diagnosis and treatment difficult. Those who suspect a loved one may be addicted to self-harming may choose to check not only the wrists, which are commonly injured, but also the stomach, legs, ankles, and the inner thigh area. Some self-harm addicts also target genitalia. Besides fresh or healed injuries, another sign of self-harm addiction is the accumulation of tools needed to injure. While razor blades are the most typical, studies show victims might use collected pieces of glass, needles, and rocks with acute edges; even erasers are often collected by addicts and used to create skin burns.
Some psychiatrists report that self-harm and addiction to drugs or alcohol may be correlated; people who have a history of chemical dependence might be more susceptible to the addiction of the endorphin rush caused by self-injury. In fact, some individuals might replace narcotics with self-harming when attempting to detoxify or end drug addiction. Not only might the practice of self-harm be a physical addiction to the chemical endorphins, but it may also be a psychological addiction to harming as a way to have control over emotions in an environment where much may seem out of the victim’s control. Treatment for the addiction of self-harming includes prescriptions for anti-depressants, group or individual therapy and various 12-step recovery programs.