- Do you cut your skin until it bleeds or pull your hair until it comes out?
- Do you have low muscle tone that makes moving seem an effort?
If so, your cutting or hair pulling may not be psychiatric but physical -- a result of sensory processing disorder (SPD).
Cutting your skin or pulling out your hair is considered a psychiatric disorder whose purpose is to distract you from intense emotional pain. Apparently it does so by releasing endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, rapidly reducing tension. Some have described the feeling afterwards as a “calm, bad feeling.”
But cutting or pulling serves another purpose: it helps you get in touch with your body. For this reason, cutting is common with people with sensory processing disorder (SPD).
Those with SPD tend to either feel things to intensely and are hypersensitive, or feel too little and are under-sensitive to sensation and experience sensory deprivation. Cutting, pulling, skin-picking etc. is basically a self-stimming behavior that calms the body by regulating internal sensory input. Why choose this route to self-regulate? Hands, scalp, and face have many nerve endings. And though it might seem counter-intuitive to seek sensation if you experience things too intensely, the body in overload will go into a state of numbness for protection – the same as it does when traumatized. A sudden wham of sensation where you have the most nerve endings will snap you out of the deadness.
Those with SPD who are under-sensitive to sensation are especially likely to use cutting etc. for self-stimming. Under-sensitivity typically goes hand in hand with having low muscle tone (think non-muscular, fleshy or floppy) and poor body awareness, which puts you at high risk for depression. Under severe emotional turmoil, you may feel emotionally frozen and cut off from your body. Cutting your skin or pulling out your hair provides intense skin sensation and pressure that helps you re-connect with your body and know you are alive and okay.
Cutting may also give you an increased sense of mastery and control for those who feel out of control and powerless to change their circumstances or experiences – an all too common mindset of those with SPD and especially for those who have suffered the dysfunction for their whole lives.
Of course, there are better ways to get in touch with your body. Deep pressure touch, as in a bear hug or massage increases body awareness as does “heavy work” – exercise that heavily engages the joints and muscles, like uphill biking, working out with weights, or carrying heavy groceries or your child.
For more information, see Uptight & Off Center