Launching A New Study of Self Harm and Pain after Interpersonal Trauma

by Adi Rosenthal, 5th Year Graduate Student, Child Clinical and DCN Programs

Survivors of interpersonal trauma are two times more likely than people in the general population to intentionally injure themselves, sometimes referred to as self-harm.  The risk of self-harm goes up even higher if survivors meet criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Over the years, research has shed on light on many reasons people self-harm. Reasons might include, for example, to signal distress, because the removal of pain feels good, or because they think they deserve pain. For survivors of interpersonal trauma, self-harm might also distract from flashbacks and intrusive memories or relieve dissociation or numbness.

Most recently, researchers have begun to focus on self-harm as a way that individuals might punish themselves when they feel very self-critical. Individuals who are highly self-critical have greater pain tolerance, lower pain aversion, and even improved mood during pain. Even a short intervention aimed at reducing self-criticism reduced people’s pain tolerance.

Better understanding of whether and how these findings apply to survivors of interpersonal trauma is needed. After all, survivors of interpersonal trauma frequently experience self-criticism in the form of self-blame and shame in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. These negative self-views are linked with higher rates of self-injury among abuse survivors. In fact, about 40% of survivors report self-injuring to try to address their feelings of guilt.

To inform clinical practice, my dissertation research focuses on examining links between trauma-related shame, self-blame, and mood during pain among survivors of interpersonal trauma. As this work continues, I look forward to reporting back on findings. 

Published by Anne P. DePrince, PhD

Author of "Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence Against Women" (Oxford University Press), Anne is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Associate Vice Provost of Public Good Strategy and Research at the University of Denver. She directs the Traumatic Stress Studies Group.

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