This isn’t about addiction, but self-harm is not unusual in the addicts we serve.
A common motivation teenagers give is that non-suicidal self-harm provides a way to escape unpleasant thoughts and emotions. Another motive, little explored before now, is that self-harm is a way to deliberately provoke a particular desired feeling or sensation. A new paper from US researchers has explored this aspect of self-harm, known as “automatic positive reinforcement” (APR).
Edward Selby and his colleagues gave 30 teenagers who self-harm (average age 17; 87 per cent were female) a digital device to carry around for two weeks. Twice a day, the device beeped and the teens were asked to record their recent thoughts of self-harm, any episodes of self-harm, their motives, their actual experiences of what it felt like, as well as answering other questions.
Just over half the sample reported engaging in at least one instance of self-harm that was motivated by wanting to experience a particular sensation (and 35 per cent of all self-harm behaviours had this motive). The most common sensation the teenagers sought was “satisfaction” (45 per cent of them), followed by “stimulation” (31 per cent) and “pain” (24 per cent). Those were the hoped for sensations. In fact, pain was experienced more often than it was sought; stimulation was experienced as often as it was sought; and satisfaction was experienced less often than the teenagers wanted.
There were differences between the teenagers who self-harmed in order to produce a particular feeling and those who didn’t have this motive. The former group self-harmed more often during the study (and in the past) and they thought about self-harm more often and for longer. Those seeking a particular feeling from self-harm also engaged in more other risky behaviours including using alcohol, binge eating and impulsive spending. Zooming in on the different sensation motives, those teens seeking pain and stimulation tended to self harm more than those who sought satisfaction.