The sight of their own blood plays a key role in the comfort that some non-suicidal people find in deliberately cutting themselves. That's according to a new study by Catherine Glenn and David Klonsky that suggests it is those self-harmers who have more serious psychological problems who are more likely to say the sight of blood is important.
There are plenty of anecdotal reports hinting at the importance of the sight and taste of blood to self-harmers, as well as references in popular music. 'Yeah you bleed just to know you're alive,' sing the Goo Goo dolls in Iris. 'I think it's time to bleed I'm gonna cut myself and Watch the blood hit the ground,' sings Korn on Right Now. However, this is the first systematic investigation on the topic.
Glenn and Klonsky recruited 64 self-harmers from a mass screening of 1,100 new psychology students. With an average age of 19, and 82 per cent being female, the students answered questions about their self-harming and other psychological problems and specifically reported on the importance of the sight of blood.
Just over half the participants said that it was important to see blood when they self-harmed, with the most common explanation being that it helps relieve tension and induces calmness. Other explanations were that it 'makes me feel real' and shows that 'I did it right/deep enough'.
The participants who said blood was important didn't differ in terms of age and gender from those who said it wasn't. However, the blood-important group reported cutting themselves far more often (a median of 30 times compared with 4 times) and they were more likely to say they self-harmed as a way of regulating their own emotions. The blood-important group also reported more symptoms consistent with bulimia nervosa and borderline personality disorder.
'Overall, these results suggest that self-injurers who report it is important to see blood are a more clinically severe group of skin-cutters,' the researchers said. 'Therefore, a desire to see blood during non-suicidal self-injury may represent a marker for increased psychopathology.'
Glenn and Klonsky said more research was needed to find out why the sight of blood has the significance it does for some people who self-harm. However, they surmised that the sight of one's own blood could, after an initial rise in heart-rate, lead to a rebound effect characterised by reduced heart-rate and feelings of calmness.
Glenn, C., & Klonsky, E. (2010). The Role of seeing blood in non-suicidal self-injury. Journal of Clinical Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20661
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.