Around two million reported cases of self-harm occur in the United States a year (Gluck 2016). I happen to be one of them. As a self-harmer, I understand the appeal to harming. However, I also know that rubbing ice along the areas I want to hit helps decrease self-harming urges. In fact, using ice makes my urges become almost non-existent. I call this “The Ice Trick” and for me it was magic. However, while ice works for me, it doesn’t work for everybody. For instance, others who are attempting to stop self-harm snap rubber bands across the skin. This technique works just like magic for them and the following ideas can be applied for the rubber band technique too. Now, allow me to reveal the science behind the magic.
It is important that we have a good understanding of why someone would want to self-harm before we dissect The Ice Trick. Jill Hooley noticed that self-injurers would endure pain for longer than those who didn’t (DeAngelis 2015). However, it wasn’t until she and her team did a study that she discovered why self-injurers endure pain for such lengthy amounts of time: The self-harmers had a negative self-image (Hooley 2013). This is probably not a surprise to many of you.
Yet, what many people don’t know is the reason why self-injurers continuously harm themselves. I have heard, like many of you may have, that self-harm lights up the pleasure center of the brain, so self-injurers continuously go back for more. However, this theory suggests that self-harmer’s brains are wired differently to like pain. This suggestion isn’t true (Franklin 2014). Self-injurers feel pain just as neurotypicals do. Yet, they continue to self-harm. So, why does self-harm “work”? Joe Franklin conducted a study in 2010 wherein he measured people’s defensive eye-blink responses before and after they submerged their hands in ice cold water. He found that self-injurers biologically feel better…and so did the non-self-harmers (DeAngelis 2015). He believes that two major processes are at play. The first is “pain offset relief,” which is where one feels a sense of euphoria after pain is alleviated (Franklin 2014). The second process is called “neural overlap,” which is exactly what it sounds like: Neurons overlap themselves. Recent studies of the brain have shown that the process center of the brain can be involved in many tasks simultaneously. Therefore, many physiological and psychological processes that occur in this area may have neurons overlapping. Thus, the brain cannot tell physical from emotional pain. So, then…The Ice Trick?
The Ice Trick works as follows: The ice used to momentarily alleviate the pain self-harmers feel acts as a “cold pain” (Franklin 2014). However, unlike self-harming there aren’t side effects of injury. (That is, so long as you don’t use ice for an extended period in one sitting.) By inflicting physical pain and then taking it away, a sense of euphoria is created and the relief of physical pain tricks the brain into thinking that the emotional pain has passed as well. Thus, magic!
DeAngelis, T. (2017). A New Look At Self-Injury [Pamphlet]. Washington, D.C., VA: American Psychological Association.
Franklin, J. (2014). How does self-injury change feelings? The Fact Sheet Series, Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Hooley, J. M., & Germain, S. A. (2014). Nonsuicidal Self-Injury, Pain, and Self-Criticism [Abstract]. Clinical Psychological Science,2(3), 297-305Hooley, J. M., & Germain, S. A. (2014). doi:10.1177/216770261350937