Those who sought to stigmatize the very serious and distressing psychological condition known as borderline personality disorder, or BPD, used to like (and perhaps still do) to put forward the theory that self-harming behaviour in those suffering from BPD is ‘merely attention-seeking’ (ridiculous when one considers the stark and brutal fact that one in ten people suffering from BPD end up dying by suicide; a statistic which is bewilderingly, and, in my view, disgracefully, often conveniently overlooked).
Clearly, suicide is the ultimate form of self-harm; however, at times of stress, those with BPD often engage in other forms of self-harm which include: cutting the skin, picking at skin to prevent healing, burning the skin with cigarettes/lighters/matches etc, hitting oneself, and even banging one’s head against a wall or jumping from dangerous heights.
Whilst the idea of self-harm is difficult for mentally healthy individuals to understand, science (see theory two, below) is now beginning to shed further light upon why BPD sufferers in distress may do it. I outline two of the theories which have been put forward below :
THEORY ONE – SELF-PUNISHMENT THEORY :
Those who have suffered severe childhood trauma, and have subsequently gone on to develop BPD, very often have been conditioned/brainwashed to view themselves as a ‘bad’ person (click here to read my article explaining the psychological process which causes this to happen). It is, therefore, possible that the self-harming behaviour which the majority of those who suffer from BPD sadly carry out may be DRIVEN BY AN INTERNAL, UNCONSCIOUS NEED TO PUNISH THEMSELVES DUE TO DEEP SEATED FEELINGS OF SELF-HATRED AND SHAME.
THEORY TWO – THE RELIEF FROM INTENSE EMOTIONAL PAIN THEORY :
When an individual inflicts physical harm upon him/herself, NEUROPEPTIDES are released in the brain (Stanley et al.); these are molecules which help neurons (brain cells) communicate with one another, and, in so doing, they influence our behaviours, thoughts and feelings. One important group of neuropeptides are OPIOIDS and these are thought to help explain why individuals might self-harm. But why should this be so?
The answer is that research has found that individuals who suffer from BPD tend to have ABNORMALLY LOW LEVELS OF BASELINE OPIOIDS. Because opioids act as natural pain-killers (in connection with both physical and emotional pain), and physical harm to the body causes more of them to be released, it is possible individuals in severe emotional pain self-harm to BOOST THEIR LEVELS OF OPIOIDS AND THUS REDUCE THE INTENSITY OF THE EMOTIONAL PAIN FROM WHICH THEY ARE SUFFERING.
Other neuropeptides released into the body as a result self-harming behaviour, and which may also help explain why BPD sufferers are driven to inflict self-injury are oxytocin and vasopressin.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).