Monday, March 24, 2008

Self Harm Seen in Animals Too

Insights about the causes and treatments for self-harm can be derived from studying when it happens to animals.

Self harm takes many forms: cutting with razor blades, biting, picking, burning with matches, scratching or otherwise intentionally damaging one's skin.

One of the things that makes self-harm so puzzling is why anyone would choose to physically damage him or herself. Unfortunately, self-harm can easily be dismissed as "senseless" or "irrational" behavior. And certainly it does seem that way at first glance.

However, research on animals that display this behavior suggests that self harm does serve a purpose - a completely rational one.

In primatology self harm is called
self-injurious behavior (SIB) and is associated with anxiety.

According to research by Bayne et al. (1995), there is no consistent evidence for the influence of rearing history on the development of self-harm among primates. What that means is that there's no evidence that the way one grows up or is parented (yes there are parallels to monkey and human parenting and psychological development) affects whether an individual turns to self harm to cope with anxiety.

The single most common denominator among animals who self harm is isolation — social isolation. Primates bite themselves, parrots pull out their feathers and dogs and cats lick themselves. Such self-injurious
behavior tends to occur in emotionally disturbing situations, particular those over which the individual has little or no control (like being locked up alone).

Birds, monkeys, people and pets are all very social creatures. Touch plays a big role in the ives of all of these species and when left along that physical contact disappears and anxiety increases. Preening and self-grooming is one way animals and people cope with anxiety. Self touch is soothing but a poor substitute for contact with others.

Research on captive primates and birds has identified that self-injurious behavior is a coping strategy to reduce arousal. Biting, licking, and feather plucking lower heart rate, one marker of relaxation.

Presumably the same sort of thing happens on a physiological level for people who injure themselves. People report feeling more calm during the act and for a little while after.

Self-injurious behavior is notoriously difficult to treat. It's compulsive behavior that defies behavioral interventions largely because a psychologist or therapist can't be present 100% of the time to remind people to replace their harmful habit with a helpful one. That's one reason why drug therapies are so popular. They are effective, with beta blockers being the most effective because they block the mood enhancing endorphins that are released during injury. Those who self harm are addicted to it behaviorally and physiologically.

Given that social isolation, stress and anxiety are the triggers and main reason for self injury, reducing stress and increasing time spent with others would be the most effective. Massage solves both and has demonstrated effectiveness for a wide range of conditions.



Interesting blog topic.
Most animals left in their natural environment of nature, are perfectly fine.
But, put these creatures in with nutty humans, and you'll find that it creates a stress for that animal.
I personally don't enjoy keeping any animal captive, especially birds.

Unknown said...

the picture of the bird is very sad. I have seen this type of behavior before in my own pets. Especially with our dogs because they are adopted. They get a great abandonment fear that even if people are around them they know that a member of our family is missing. ie: My mom was away for the past week, one of our dogs started chewing her tail and we had to spray it (we then figured she had fleas) but even after that she cried a lot. We gave her flea mediacation and now that my mom is back things are better.

Animals are extremely human like.

good blog post!

Weird Bug Lady said...

Interesting post!

I have experience with this from the animal and human perspective.

My parrot is a rescue bird, his owner was neglectful and when we got him, he'd pluck his feathers a lot (though not nearly as bad as that picture!). After a few years of lots of love and play, he finally stopped plucking and is now a well adjusted bird.

I've been chewing my fingers, picking at the skin around my nails, and picking at my face for just about my whole life. It's incredibly soothing. It's mostly in times of stress, but then it developed into something I did ALL the time, no matter how great I felt. Afterwards, though, I feel gross because my fingers are nasty looking. But I could never convince myself it was really a big deal.

Finally, a couple months ago, after trying so many different remedies, I made myself quit completely. I just refused to let myself pick at my fingers. I told my friends to alert me when I was doing it, and I brought play doh with me to classes to keep my hands busy. So far it's working and my fingers are finally healing from years and years of torturous picking.

It's still extremely difficult to control, but it's a nice feeling and more satisfying than the picking ever was.

Jennifer Juniper said...

A very revealing article. Though I never connected the behavior between humans and animals before. It gives me insight into my little doggie.

Cara Carmina said...

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Cara Carmina said...

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wink wink...

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PG said...

Very interesting. It is easy to pass SIB in humans as being simply a cry for attention. But the fact that animals do it indicates that there is a clear physiological component to it. The picture of the bird is heartbreaking.

I recall my undergraduate advisor talking candidly about how she used to go for massages during graduate school -- for the sake of human touch. It's good advice.

Patricia Hecker said...

Fascinating entry. Thanks for insight. I had this issue as a young girl loosing my Mom to cancer. I'm sure it was my coping mechanism at the time.
This may help others.


Diana said...

Very interesting, and many angles to explore. What I find fascinating is that the subjects create such an anti-social behavior to combat social anxiety/isolation. Beings who look sick or ailing tend to be culled rather than embraced, KWIM? Just one of life's dichotomies.

Thank you for presenting such interesting reading!

Best wishes,

Greg said...

You guys are over complicating it. The point of self-harm is that it makes humans care, tend to the animals injuries. Girls do it because it causes the same sort of glances towards their bodies that would be happening if they had nice bodies. My dog would bash his head on the wall, once he lost mobility and he couldn't bark either, in order to ask for something. He finally stopped when I taught him that I was no longer falling for this trick.