Why is Self-harm on the rise?


I’ve taken up running again (grateful nod to the best physio in the world), and to keep me company I’ve downloaded hours of nerdy sciencey podcasts – and it’s brilliant!

My current addiction is “You Are Not So Smart” – it’s super informative and one doesn’t have to be a scientist or academic to ‘get’ it. And it has this way of helping you to understand that a lot of what you thought you knew is wrong – or at least has been improved upon. If only I could force all the world leaders to subscribe … AND it’s free! ( As I’m here I also recommend 99% Invisible and The infinite Monkey Cage which is very funny as well as fascinating).

So, here’s the thing: my colleagues and I have noticed a worrying trend in self-harm. The figures are on the rise, despite a falling suicide rate. So something else must be going on. While I’ve blogged before on what to do if someone you love self-harms, I’ve never talked about the why. And that’s because I wasn’t aware of any evidence based peer-reviewed research that had a proper look at that question. But yesterday, while trotting around Castlemartyr, my new podcast jolted me into awareness. (seriously, it’s great, I do recommend downloading it).

The experiment

Three years ago a series of experiments was done to look at how we manage sitting with our own thoughts. Essentially, the subjects were given 6-15 minutes to sit in a room and were told to do nothing other than stay awake. Crucially, in one of the experimental conditions, the subjects were given a choice of administering themselves a painful shock. And what they found was… shocking (sorry). The majority of people found sitting quietly, listening to only their own thoughts, very uncomfortable – remember it was only 6-15 minutes. And the majority of subjects opted to hurt themselves rather than remain seated quietly doing nothing – particularly the male subjects (67%). Even if they had previously stated that they would pay to avoid a shock, they still self-administered a painful shock to ‘fill’ the time. Again, 6-15 minutes.

They preferred to hurt themselves than sit with their thoughts for a few minutes. Imagine that. You probably can…

This effect was replicated by 11 studies, and even when taken out of the psych lab – where I can understand one wanting to shock themselves – and into their own homes, the effect was the same.

We just cannot bear listening to our own heads.

What does this mean in real life?

Some researchers will interpret this as a side effect of mobile phone usage. But more say that this is the reason mobile phone usage is so addictive. We are distracting ourselves, giving ourselves a hit of dopamine as the “likes” roll in, which is preferable to thinking in that negative way we ALL do sometimes, or often, in fact.  And if the habit is really engrained, we do it most of the time.

And of course this experiment is utterly revolutionary in that it give us a framework to answer that question – why do we self harm? Because for some of us, it’s better than doing nothing.

“The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.” – John Milton #Selfharm #mentalhealth #mindfulness share with another human

Then there’s the question – why do we self-harm MORE? I feel there are several societal factors at play here, but one seems almost certainly to do with our reduced tolerance for painful thoughts. And our phone addictions. If you think of a typical social media feed, it’s full of shiny happy thoughts and memories and photos. We all look our best, have the best days, the BEST friends, and super sunny insta-holidays. Everything is so wonderful!! So where does the misery live? Is there room for it? Not any more. So more and more, we are pushing misery out of normal.

We are placing value on shiny happy, and calling the rest a mental health issue. Share on X

Which it is – but not in an abnormal sense. Misery is normal, miserable thoughts are normal. Violent thoughts are normal, deviant, hateful shameful thoughts – all normal.

“Crazy”, violent, normal thoughts

But we hate how we feel when we engage with or notice them. And they don’t match our online persona at all. We’ve created a cognitive dissonance all of our own. Unique to our time.

So we distract ourselves, and if we are unlucky enough to have not learned how to self regulate, that distraction might take the form of self harm – in any of its many forms – a virtual shock if you will.

Alone with thoughts

This helps explain exactly why Mindfulness works with clients who self harm.

What can we do?

Before you roll your eyes and have vision of sitting cross-legged with incense let me tell you that mindfulness is easy. And with practice it changes how we think, how we feel when we think. There are many apps some free, (that one isn’t free,  but it’s good) and online videos that will teach you how to do it. Here’s a site that has, as the author accurately told me, an “actionable guide” to mindfulness. See what you think (and let me know!)

The beauty of mindfulness is that we learn to notice our ‘bad’ thoughts without judging them, without fear and self-loathing. This is key. Once we tolerate ourselves, and the mad stuff our brains create, we feel better.

And sitting with ourselves, even if in pain, real pain, feels less like the end of the world.

And maybe, we might learn to put the phone down. Or even go for a run in silence!

Here’s a little ten minute clip of Andy Puddicombe, founder of HeadSpace, speaking about mindfulness – worth a watch!


Non – academic report on the studies.

Actual research: (You’ll have to register but it’s free) 

Links to some academic articles on Mindfulness  research

Suicide rate stats: Suicide figures Ireland

Photo credit – Me (seagull) and two free stocks

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