Excel At Life logo


PsychArticles button PsychNotes button PsychApps button PsychAudios button PsychTests button About button
Support Excel At Life's Mission!
Help Translate
Spread the Word
Make Contribution
Become a fan on Facebook! Follow on twitter for site updates! Follow on Google+ for site updates!
Excel At Life--Dedicated to the Pursuit of Excellence in Life, Relationships, Sports and Career

Back Button











Sport Psych


Crazy-Makers: Dealing with Passive-Aggressive People

Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally!

When You Have Been Betrayed

Struggling to Forgive: An Inability to Grieve

Happy Habits: 50 Suggestions

The Secret of Happiness: Let It Find You (But Make the Effort)

Excellence vs. Perfection

Depression is Not Sadness

Conflict in the Workplace

Motivation: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People

Promoting Healthy Behavior Change

10 Common Errors in CBT

What to Do When Your Jealousy Threatens to Destroy Your Marriage

Rejection Sensitivity, Irrational Jealousy and Impact on Relationships

For Women Only: How to Have the Relationship of Your Dreams

What to Do When Your Partner's Jealousy Threatens to Destroy Your Relationship

Making Attributions for a Healthier Attitude

Happiness is An Attitude

Thinking Your Way to a Healthy Weight

Guide to How to Set Achieveable Goals

The Effectiveness of Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment for Anxiety Disorders

Co-Dependency: An Issue of Control

The Pillars of the Self-Concept: Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy

Catastrophe? Or Inconvenience?


Panic Assistance

Motivational Audios

Mindfulness Training

Rational Thinking

Relaxation for Children

Change Yourself--Don't Wait for the World to Change

Loving Kindness Meditation

Self-Esteem Exercise

Meadow Relaxation

Rainy Autumn Morning

Energizing Audios

Quick Stress Relief

Thinking Your Way to a Healthy Weight

Lies You Were Told

Choosing Happiness

Lotus Flower Relaxation

Audio Version of Article: Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People

Audio Version of Article: Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally!

Audio Version of Article: Happiness Is An Attitude

All Audio Articles

Kindle Books by Dr. Monica Frank


Emotion Training: What is it and How Does it Work?

How You Can Be More Resistant to Workplace Bullying

Are You Passive Aggressive and Want to Change?

When Your Loved One Refuses Help

The Porcupine Effect: Pushing Others Away When You Want to Connect

What if You Considered Other Peoples' Views?

5 Common Microaggressions Against Those With Mental Illness

What to Expect from Mindfulness-based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (MCBT) When You Have Depression and Anxiety

Does Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Lack Compassion? It Depends Upon the Therapist

When Needs Come Into Conflict

What to Do When Anger Hurts Those You Love

A Brief Primer On the Biology of Stress and How CBT Can Help

50 Tools for Panic and Anxiety

Coping With Change: Psychological Flexibility

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Ending a Bad Relationship

I'm Depressed. I'm Overwhelmed. Where Do I Start?


Building Blocks Emotion Training

Hot Springs Relaxation

5 Methods to Managing Anger

Panic Assistance While Driving

Autogenic Relaxation Training

Rainbow Sandbox Mindfulness

Mindfulness Training

Riding a Horse Across the Plains

Cityscape Mindfulness

Change Yourself--Don't Wait for the World to Change

The Great Desert Mindfulness

Tropical Garden Mindfulness

Thinking Your Way to a Healthy Weight

Lies You Were Told

Probability and OCD

Choosing Happiness

Magic Bubbles for Children

Lotus Flower Relaxation

Cloud Castles for Children

Hot Air Balloon Motivation

All Audio Articles

January 11, 2017       

Self-injurious Behaviors Do Not Provide Relief From Negative Emotions

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
woman showing distress
The prevailing theory for why individuals engage in cutting and other self-injurious behaviors has been that it decreases negative emotions. However, most research has been retrospective which means that a person may be questioned days after the behavior occurred. It is commonly known in psychology that long-term memory can be distorted. Thus, retrospective research more accurately describes what people believe about why they cut themselves, not what actually occurs.

A recent study of hospitalized patients with Borderline Personality Disorder sows doubt on this theory. Instead of relying on long-term memory, the patients carried a tablet which prompted them 10 times a day to answer a few questions about their emotions. In such a way, more immediate emotions could be determined following episodes of self-injurious behavior. The outcome of the study showed that instead of a decrease in negative emotions an increase in these emotions occurred. In addition, it showed that increases in negative emotions leads to self-injurious behavior creating a repeating pattern (Houben, et al., 2017).

Why do people cut themselves if it doesn't make them feel better?

If self-injurious behaviors do not lead to a reduction in negative feelings, why do people continue to do it? The authors speculated on several possibilities:

1) Immediate relief. Although this research is better than most it still couldn't assess the emotional state within seconds of the self-injurious act. It is possible that a very brief, but powerful, moment of relief occurs which affects the long-term memory causing people to believe that cutting makes them feel better.

2) Habituation. When a person repeatedly engages in a behavior they tend to become desensitized to it. What this means is that when they first engaged in self-injurious behavior they obtained longer-term relief. However, as the body becomes accustomed to it they no longer have the benefit of a reduction in negative emotions.

3) Not for relief. Even though individuals report that the purpose of the behavior is to feel relief, they may be engaging in the behavior for another reason such as social reinforcement due to others' concern or attention.

What can be done?

Educating those who engage in self-injurious behavior believing that it helps them feel better can help them learn other methods to achieve the desired outcome. If their purpose is to reduce negative emotions then knowing that the long-term effect of cutting leads to increased negative emotions may help them seek other means of relief:

1) Emotional tolerance. A primary reason to attempt to escape negative emotions is due to the inability to tolerate them. Many people feel helpless as if they are trapped or controlled by the negative emotions. However, methods that increase emotional tolerance can provide relief. One of these methods is mindfulness. For more information, see Understanding Mindfulness especially "Step 3: Mindfulness and Unpleasant Emotions."

2) Cognitive restructuring. Negative emotions can be reduced by examining and challenging the thoughts that produced the emotions. The cognitive diary method is useful in this process.

These skills need to be taught by a knowledgeable professional because they can be difficult and frustrating to learn when a person is in severe emotional distress. Both Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MCBT) include these skills.

Houben, M., Claes, L., Vansteelandt, K., Berens, A., Slewwaegen, E. and Kuppens, P. (2017). The Emotion Regulation Function of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury: A Momentary Assessment Study in Inpatients With Borderline Personality Disorder Features. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 126, 89–95. DOI:10.1037/abn0000229


Questions and Comments

All comments and questions require approval so you may not see your submission immediately.

More PsychNotes

  • Convincing Yourself to Forgive When It Seems Unfair
  • Do You Have Too Much Empathy?
  • Difference Between Dealing With Emotions and Being Stuck in Negative Emotions
  • It's Just Words
  • Irrational: Is it the Word or the Intention that is Offensive?
  • When Emotional Reasoning Interferes With Having a Dialog About Micro-aggressions
  • Gratitude Associated With Self-control
  • Developing Emotional Tolerance
  • When You are Distressed: Write!
  • Predicting Regret to Help Make Decisions
  • Understanding Asperger's Syndrome, Grief, and Avoidance of Loss
  • When to Forgive Yourself: Self-forgiveness and Responsibility
  • Importance of Guilt vs. Irrational Guilt
  • The Costs of “Get Over It”
  • Empathy Requires a Strong Sense of Self
  • Six Characteristics that Distinguish a Healthy Anger from Hate
  • Love Enhances Men's Ability to Recognize Emotion
  • Rejection Elicits Positive Coping Among Those With High Self-Esteem
  • Mindful Attention Reduces Anger for Those With Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Addiction to Emotions and Mindfulness Practice
  • Does Sadness Cause Depression?
  • Acceptance as the Basis for Wisdom?
  • Drug Companies to Profit From Grief? An Opinion
  • “I want to feel good NOW!”
  • Moody? Maybe It's Your Stomach Bacteria
  • Be Realistic! Not Optimistic!
  • Anxiety and the Avoidance of Positive Emotions
  • Being Mindful of Emotions Decreases Intensity
  • Grief is Not Depression
  • To Cry or Not to Cry?
  • Qi Gong Exercise Shown to Improve Mood
  • Afraid of Feeling Good?
  • Leave Work at Work: Emotional Detachment

  • PsychNotes Index

    Previous Month        Next Month

    Become a fan on Facebook! Follow on twitter for site updates! Follow on Google+ for site updates!