Friday, 20 February 2015

Is self-disgust the emotional trigger that leads to self-harm?

To help people who perform non-lethal self-harm, such as cutting and burning themselves, we need a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings that contribute to them resorting to this behaviour. Risk factors are already known, including depression and a history of sexual abuse. However, Noelle Smith and her colleagues wondered if these factors increase the risk of self-harm because they lead people to experience self-disgust. Viewed this way, the researchers believe "self-disgust may serve as an emotional trigger" for self-harm.

Over five hundred undergrads, men and women, answered questions about whether they'd ever intentionally harmed themselves (including cutting, burning and scratching); when they'd last performed such an act; their depression symptoms; any history of physical or sexual abuse; their anxiety; and crucially, their feelings of self-disgust, as measured by 18 items, such as "I find myself repulsive".

Consistent with the researchers' predictions, the more self-disgust a student reported, the greater the likelihood that they had previously performed self-harm (statistically speaking, a one standard deviation increase in self-disgust was associated with a two-fold increase in the odds of reporting self-harm).

Levels of self-disgust were the highest in those students who said they'd performed self-harm in the last year. These were also the same students who tended to report depression symptoms and a history of physical or sexual abuse. It's notable though, that depression was no longer associated with self-harm once self-disgust was taken into account, suggesting that self-disgust is the key mediating factor.

These findings jibe with past research on the more cognitive aspects of self-disgust - for example, there's evidence that self-harm is associated with being self-critical and having an excessive focus on one's own mistakes. Other studies have highlighted reductions in self-disgust after acts of self-harm, but also increases. Smith and her colleagues suggested the link could be bi-directional: self-harm may assuage feelings of disgust with self, but performing a self-harming act may then trigger feelings of shame with one's own actions.

The cross-sectional nature of this study means it can't shed light on the direction of causality -  whether self-disgust contributes to self-harm behaviours, or if the reverse is true. Self-disgust was also measured as trait, rather than as an acute state of mind. The researchers acknowledged these issues, but they note theirs is the first study to look at the emotion of self-disgust as a precipitating factor for self-harm, and they call for more research. For now, they said their results suggest reducing self-disgust may help people who are at risk of self-harm.


Smith, N., Steele, A., Weitzman, M., Trueba, A., & Meuret, A. (2015). Investigating the Role of Self-Disgust in Nonsuicidal Self-Injury Archives of Suicide Research, 19 (1), 60-74 DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2013.850135

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Research Digest said...

No it isn't. The researchers seem to have locked their minds onto the idea that self-harm is a form of self-punishment. Perhaps because a desire to punish would typically motivate harm against other people?

There may be a correlation between people who self-harm and self-disgust - as that is what the researchers say they found - , but it is not the trigger (why would it be? it doesn't even make sense). Of course multiple factors are often involved, and very likely self-disgust is part of the mix, but "function" is def. the key.

Self-harm is a way to redirect acute, intense, emotional pressure/distress, an acute outlet to avoid exploding or going insane from an overflowing fight/flight mind state. It has a self-preservation function (albeit extremely short-sighted), that is why it can be so hard to quit it. It is a crisis survival tool, just like e.g. drug abuse and alcoholism can be. If you take the undesirable tool away and don't replace it with a less destructive but equally effective tool, then it will just reemerge next time the trigger becomes too strong to handle.

Almost all persons whose self-harm experiences I'm familiar with, explain that function is the main driver, that there isn't or wasn't an effective alternative for coping with intense inner overload, it was "the lesser evil", a coping tool. That is also my own experience. Self-harm wasn't overcome until the trigger situations were not a frequent occurrence, and until alternative effective coping strategies were developed. And where these fall short, relapse is still possible.

I think researchers could benefit from serious indepth, assumption-free qualitative studies to get to grasp the rational logic of self-harm, as a precursor to testing hypotheses and drawing conclusions. Perhaps also select a broader sample than just undergrad students, including more mature people with a present or past self-harm history.

Research Digest said...

I completely agree with you Anna. I do agree that there can be a relationship between self-harm and self-disgust but in my experience it's that the self-digust follows the self-harm and never the other way round. What also seems to be missing is the acknowledgement of the fact that self-harm can become addictive. Self-harm is usually used as a way of coping with extreme emotional pain or stress but can also be used to help someone feel something, even pain, when they feel empty and numb. Although it brings relief it is always temporary so the next time the situation that caused it arises the urge to harm reappears and is incredibly hard to resist. The only way i know of to stop self-harming is to get out of whatever situation is causing the pain, stress or whatever leads to the person harming themselves.

I also agree that using undergraduates is not going to give a full picture of this issue. Why do psychologists continually insist on using students as research participants, do they not realise that the information gained cannot possibly be applied to the entire population. I've only just finished my psychology degree and even i know that. Also in the questions asked to the participants why was emotional abuse not included with physical and sexual, as a survivor of it i can tell you it is as valid a form of abuse as the others yet continuously seems to be overlooked.

Clearly there are some interesting results from this research but until the shortcomings are addressed it will still fail to give any real of understanding of what leads people to self-harm.

Research Digest said...

I think self-harm is far more correlated to low self-esteem. When a person views themself as a nothing, then nothing is how you feel. That is why it is important to greet everyone with a hello that you come across. You never know how they are doing. A simple hello might just make their day.

Research Digest said...

If readers are interested in the concept of self-disgust, they may consider looking up the following book that is currently in press and will be available soon: This volume includes a chapter written by Outi Benson (University of Exeter) and colleagues on "Varieties of disgust in self-harm".

Research Digest said...

I think people can self harm in other ways besides physical harming, entering into by self destructive behaviour, having a pattern of abusive relationship and situations. I think alot of self harming goes back to feeling ashamed and angry as well as being powerless and unable to control situations and feeling trapped in situations with no way out.
drug and alcoholism as well as eating disorders and over doing exercise and working too hard are all part ways you can harm yourself but not always seen in that way.

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