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31 August 2010
New clues to the calming effects of self-harm

Does cutting or burning oneself provide relief from emotional distress? Yes, according to people who compulsively hurt themselves. And now, according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry, scientists have evidence that the calming effect is real.

Researcher Inga Niedtfeld, from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, studied the effects of emotional stimuli and a thermal stimulus in people either with or without borderline personality disorder. She conducted an imaging study using picture stimuli to induce negative, positive, or neutral affect and thermal stimuli to induce heat pain or warmth perception. The painful heat stimuli were administered at an individually-set temperature threshold for each subject.

In patients with borderline personality disorder, Niedtfeld found evidence of heightened activation of limbic circuitry in response to pictures evocative of positive and negative emotions, consistent with their reported emotion regulation problems. Amygdala activation also correlated with self-reported deficits in emotion regulation. However, the thermal stimuli inhibited the activation of the amygdala in these patients and also in healthy controls, presumably suppressing emotional reactivity.

"These data are consistent with the hypothesis that physically painful stimuli provide some relief from emotional distress for some patients with borderline personality disorder because they paradoxically inhibit brain regions involved in emotion. This process may help them to compensate for deficient emotional regulation mechanisms," explained John Krystal, the editor of Biological Psychiatry.

Niedtfeld says that these results are in line with previous findings on emotional hyperactivity in borderline personality disorder and suggest that these individuals process pain stimuli differently depending on their arousal status.

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Source: Biological Psychiatry

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