Self-harm, play piercing, and endorphin regulation

A lot of aspies self-harm. Even more used to, until they were told to stop by either their parents, their therapists, or their inner conscience. Most of those that do wouldn’t admit to doing it. But yet they all feel the need to, and they all carry on doing it even when they want to stop. They like the feeling of pain. They need the feeling of pain, and the mental state that it brings with it. And it truly helps them to feel better.

Then you get the neurotypicals who poke needles through their skin because they like the way it feels. They call it play piercing, and they say that they not only enjoy the physical feeling but that it gives them this intense rush of happiness inside, which gets ever increasingly intense as they add more and more needles, sometimes hundreds all over their body.

What do these have in common? They’re both in some way penetrating their bodies in a way that causes pain. And they both like that feeling of pain. But it’s not just the pain that they’re after; it’s the brain’s response to the pain that they associate with the pain, and which makes them seek more pain. A sensation of pain causes the brain to release chemicals called endorphins, and the endorphins inhibit the transmission of the pain sensation. In short, endorphins are natural painkillers, which the brain releases in response to pain. So by causing pain intentionally, one can intentionally cause the release of endorphins.

But it’s not the painkilling aspect of endorphins that self-harmers and play piercers seek. Endorphins have other effects too, and one of those other effects is that they invoke a feeling of happiness. In fact, endorphins are the chemicals that control happiness – when we’re in a situation that makes us happy, our brain releases endorphins and that causes us to experience happiness.

So by intentionally causing oneself pain, one can intentionally trigger the release of endorphins, which will make one feel happier. Indeed the experience of happiness resulting from self-harm does not feel the same as true happiness, but superficially it is similar and it is similar enough for both groups of people to keep wanting it over and over, just as one wants to feel happy.

So what the play piercers are doing is triggering an intense endorphin “rush”, leading to a sudden feeling of happiness, which they enjoy. And what the self-harmers are doing is releasing endorphins into their body to make up for the absence of other happiness.

Here then is the link between self-harm and depression: depression either causes or comes as a result of a lack of endorphins. In either case, increasing the concentration of endorphins in the brain will help the depressed person to feel better. By self-harming, the depressed person feels a little better, and can continue getting through life. Here, too, is the link between self-harm and Asperger’s: aspies tend to feel depressed easily as a result of their more intense emotions. By self-harming, they can balance out their depression and feel a little more positive about life.

So let’s put the play piercers aside now and think about self-harm and depression: by intentionally releasing endorphins, one can reduce depression, thus endorphins can be considered a kind of natural anti-depressant, and self-harm can be considered a natural way to regulate one’s endorphin level to keep oneself from sinking too deep into depression. See what I did there? Yes, self-harm can be used to manage depression.

And that’s the point here: we need to stop thinking of self-harm as a negative behaviour and instead start viewing it as the body’s natural response to depression. Is it a better anti-depressant than medication? Is it better to let a depressed person manage their depression themselves, through self-harm, as necessary? Is self-harm actually a protection mechanism, just like shivering when one is cold, rather than a way to mutilate oneself out of hate for one’s own body? The truth is, we don’t know. And we won’t know until more research is done. But that research won’t get done until we stop viewing self-harm as something to be stopped as soon as possible.

The fact that the depressed person instinctively turns to self-harm as a way of dealing with their depression tells me that it’s supposed to work as a way to regulate one’s emotions.

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