"From the Archives", first published in the Digest 05.01.04.
Psychologists in America have documented what they believe to be the first report of tattooing used as a form of emotional self-regulation. Michael Anderson (Wright State University, USA) and Randy Sansone (Kettering Medical Centre, USA) reported the case of Mr. B, a 19-yr-old who was hospitalised voluntarily following acute suicidal thoughts. Diagnosed with major depressive disorder, Mr. B explained to the clinicians that he had dealt with his emotional pain in the past through acquiring tattoos. "Physical pain helps to take my mind of it" he said. He had considered cutting himself but "people would see the cuts and it would be pretty embarrassing". The greater his emotional pain at a given time, the more sensitive the body area he selected for tattooing.
Anderson and Sansone interpreted this behaviour as a form of mood regulation, distracting Mr. B from his intolerably depressive feelings. Physiologically, the pain of the tattoos might have resulted in the release of naturally occurring opioids in the brain and had a therapeutic effect that way. The authors concluded that the question of how often tattooing is used in this way "warrants further investigation".
Anderson, M. & Sansone, R.A. (2003). Tattooing as a means of acute affect regulation. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 10, 316-318.
Link to BPS leaflet on self-harm.