Non-suicidal self-injury

I think that one of the most baffling phenomena in the repertory of human behavior, to people outside the mental health field, is self-mutilation. Most of us fear and avoid physical pain and disfigurement, and it’s hard for us to understand why anyone would intentionally hurt themselves of self-mutilate. Over the course of my career as a psychologist, I discovered that there are a variety of motivations and explanations for self-harm.

Some people harm themselves because they are in a psychotic state of mind. It may be that voices nobody else can hear tell people to hurt themselves, or that self-harm is the result of delusional beliefs. I’ve known a man who gnawed off several fingers and another who gouged out his eyes for incomprehensible reasons, while psychotic. Other people injure themselves impulsively, because their distress impairs their judgment and they don’t know what else to do; so they bang their heads against the wall, or punch through a pane of glass.

Yet others learn from experience that cutting, or otherwise hurting, themselves provides immediate relief from overwhelming emotional pain; and it becomes a habit. The brain often responds to pain by releasing endorphins, whose molecules resemble morphine. (I recently learned that one reason some people enjoy eating really hot peppers is that the pain gives them an endorphin high.) This substitution of physical pain for emotional pain is hard for many of us to understand, but it reliably meets a need for some people. It can be viewed as a kind of masochism, with the distinction that it’s not done for pleasure, but rather for relief from pain.

What I would say to a client when I learned that they were self-mutilating was something like, “I believe that if you knew better ways to cope with your emotional distress, you’d use them, instead of hurting yourself. So let’s work on finding better ways.” Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is a pathological behavior for many people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, and its elimination is one of the first goals of the most effective treatment available for people with that diagnosis – Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

DBT is the creation of Dr. Marsha Linehan. She designed it to help people who feel like they’re living in Hell, as a way out. Each patient in a DBT program is assigned an individual therapist, and is required to attend skills training groups twice a week. Two of the skills modules that are geared to the elimination of  NSSIs – or parasuicidal behaviors – are distress tolerance and emotion regulation. Borderline traits and symptoms are characterized by emotional imbalance. In learning to tolerate distress and regulate emotions, the clients learn how to achieve emotional balance. They no longer have to rely on the endorphin rush they get from cutting or burning themselves, once they’ve found better ways to cope with emotional distress.

The most extreme instance of self-mutilation I ever encountered in my career, not involving psychosis, was a long-considered and carefully executed self-castration. I speculate that the man’s motivation was related to either or both fear of a strong sex drive and/or disturbing sexual fantasies and urges. A fundamentalist Christian, he believed himself to be tempted by demonic “powers and principalities,” in a battle over his soul. He was quite intelligent and had a rationale for his agenda.

When he’d asked a surgeon to castrate him, he’d been told that no doctor could ethically accommodate his request, as there was no medical reason for the surgery. So he studied books on surgery until he felt confident that he could operate on himself. He decided to castrate himself in two  separate surgeries, coached his wife to serve as his surgical assistant, and set up a surgical suite in their home. The first surgery went off without a hitch. I never would have encountered the man if he hadn’t botched the second surgery. When he and his wife couldn’t stop the bleeding after he’d severed his remaining testicle, they had to call 911.

The local hospital contacted me to evaluate him. He was medically stable and ready for discharge, but his doctor wanted me to make a recommendation regarding any possible suicide risk. The man showed no signs of either depression or psychosis. He was pleasant and cooperative, explaining his rationale for castrating himself and answering all of my questions. He seemed somewhat embarrassed by having been found out, but seemed to have no other regrets about his actions. He persuasively denied any suicidal thinking, and he didn’t meet the criteria for involuntary psychiatric commitment. So I recommended that he be discharged. I gave him my card and told him that I was available if he wanted to follow up, but he never contacted me.

As an adult, I’ve never referred to mentally ill people as “crazy” – only behaviors. This was an example of how a legally sane person can do a carefully-considered, but crazy, thing.

Exposure Therapy

Most everybody knows what you’re supposed to do if you’re thrown by a horse. If you want to keep on riding, you get back up on horseback right away, to overcome your fear of being thrown again. The only way to get over your fear of drowning, if you swim in the deep end of the swimming pool, is to leave the shallow end and swim in water over your head.

The clinical term for this principle in psychology is exposure. Exposure is the antidote to avoidance, our very human tendency to reduce anxiety by avoiding activities and situations that tend to trigger anxiety. Avoidance is like a drug that immediately and reliably reduces anxiety or fear. For example, Tom is attracted to his high school classmate Jane, and wants to ask her out. He’s told himself that today’s the day he’ll get up his nerve and approach her, but he avoids doing it as the day goes by. As the end of the school day nears, he gets more and more anxious. But the moment he decides to postpone it until tomorrow, his anxiety dissipates. Avoiding and postponing work in the short-term, but serve to entrench our anxieties and fears in the long-term. Avoidance is one of the defense mechanisms  identified by Freud.

According to Dr. Marsha Linehan,  whose Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder has been empirically shown to be highly effective,, exposure is a necessary component of all effective cognitive behavior therapies. Two of the skills training modules in DBT, emotion regulation and distress tolerance, help to prepare clients for exposure to things they typically avoid.

Exposure therapy can be effective in treating Generalized Anxiety  Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and phobias – irrational fears. It involves habituation to the feared stimulus/situation. Imagining exposure to successive approximations of the stimulus/situation (imaginal exposure) and teaching heightened awareness of physiological responses such as heartrate and muscle tension (interoceptive exposure) can be accomplished in the therapist’s office. Exposure to the actual stimulus/situation “out in the world” (in vivo exposure) is often the third step of exposure therapy. Being aware of the thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses involved prepares the client for in vivo exposure. Gradually working your way from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end involves exposure to “successive approximations” of the thing most feared. Jumping – or being thrown – into the deep end is an example of “flooding.”

The therapeutic method known as systematic desensitization was pioneered by South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe. After doing a behavior analysis of thoughts, feelings and physiological responses involved in a phobic reaction, he did relaxation training until the client felt some degree of control over his typical responses. Then he worked with the client to develop a hierarchy of fears, from the least fear-inducing to the most fear-inducing thoughts/experiences. Using this hierarchy, he would work with the client on relaxing as they went through successive approximations, leading up to the thing most feared.

Here’s an example of how I might use this method with a client who had never flown in an airplane, due to her phobia about flying. (Because flying is statistically much safer than driving, fear of flying is considered  an irrational fear, or phobia.) Having assessed Louise’s typical thoughts, feelings, and physiological responses/anxiety symptoms, and having trained her to relax, I might start a session with a relaxation induction, leading to a guided fantasy based on her hierarchy of fears. Louise has been instructed to close her eyes, to raise her right index finger whenever she felt an increase of anxiety, and to lower it when the anxiety decreased.

“You’re in your apartment and you’re packing for your flight . . . . Now you have your bags packed and you’re waiting for a taxi to the airport . . . . And now you’re at the airport and you hear the boarding call . . . . Now you’ve stashed your carry-on and are seated, buckling your seatbelt, etc.” Whenever Louise would raise her finger, I’d switch from the guided fantasy to the relaxation induction: “And as you breathe slowly and deeply, you can feel your muscles relaxing, and your anxiety is replaced by a calm feeling . . . . ” When the finger went down, I’d pick up where I left off on the guided fantasy.

Over time, Louise learns that she has increased control over her response to fearful thoughts, getting gradually closer and closer to the thing she fears most. Once she can imagine herself staying in control as the airplane takes to the skies, we might go on to in vivo exposure therapy, which might involve me accompanying her – at least at first. Some private practice therapists specializing in the treatment of phobias might even accompany his client on his first flight, coaching and encouraging him.

People with severe OCD often engage in compulsive rituals to reduce their anxiety. Exposure therapy can help them to learn that they don’t have to rely on these rituals to reduce their anxiety. People with anxiety disorders can use the principles of successive approximation to gradually desensitize themselves to stimuli/situations that used to trigger anxiety. Exposure therapy can similarly help people with PTSD to control physiological arousal in response to stimuli/situations that used to trigger fear. But in order to overcome an irrational fear, you have to eventually face it.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Part 1

For two years I worked in a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program at Columbia Area Mental Health Center. The program director was Dr. Sherri Manning, trained by Dr. Marsha Linehan, who had devised DBT for people (mostly women) diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). People with that diagnosis are notoriously difficult to treat, and DBT provided the first effective, empirically validated therapy for that disorder.  Working in a DBT program requires the study of Dr. Linehan’s groundbreaking textbook, Cognitive-behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder and the accompanying Skills Training Manual for  Treating Borderline Personality Disorder.  Every clinician in a DBT program is a member of the “consultation team,” which supports the team members in their challenging work.

Borderline Personality Disorder is characterized by extreme emotional dysregulation, or imbalance. Personality disorders are  diagnosed on Axis II of the DSM (the “Bible” of psychodiagnosis), apart from Axis I diagnoses like depression, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia. According to Dr. Linehan, all people with BPD have an underlying Axis I pathology, but have also experienced trauma that has shaped their behavior in persistent, dysfunctional ways. People with the disorder are often suicidal, and frequently engage in self-destructive behavior, including drug abuse and/or self-mutilation. They go to extremes in over-valuing and then rejecting significant others – sometimes in the same day. Dr. Linehan describes them as living in Hell and not knowing there’s a way out.

In order to be accepted in a DBT program, the client has to sign a year-long treatment agreement, to be renewed at year’s end if the client wants to stay in the program. She agrees to keep a daily diary card, charting moods, thoughts, and behaviors; and agrees to keep individual and group therapy appointments. Participation in the program is contingent on living up to the terms of the treatment agreement, and the client also agrees to other specified contingencies, which I’ll write about later. In the DBT program I worked in, patients were seen once a week for individual therapy and twice a week for skills training group sessions. Although individual therapy plays an important role in DBT, the skills training groups are at its heart. There’s no processing of issues in these sessions, but rather the presentation of skills by the group leaders, and coaching in their use.

One of the skills taught to DBT therapists is radical validation. Whereas I might equivocate if someone said I’d yelled at them, under normal circumstances (i.e. “I didn’t yell, I raised my voice because I felt frustrated.”), if a client in the program accused me of yelling at her, I’d validate her perception and immediately apologize for yelling. People with the BPD diagnosis are frequently blamed for things they can’t control. Many have never heard validating messages like, “You didn’t choose to be like this. If you knew better ways of  dealing with your pain, you’d use them. I believe in you and your ability to create a better life for yourself.”

Four modules are taught in DBT skills training groups: Core Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance. Group leaders are trained in specific techniques to facilitate skill acquisition, strengthening and generalization. There are a lot of handouts and homework assignments. The groups reinforce what the clients are learning by keeping their daily diary cards. DBT is a cognitive-behavioral therapy in that it helps clients to learn the connections between emotions, thoughts and behaviors, and to apply that knowledge. A primary goal of the therapy is to help the clients achieve balance in their lives.

Marsha Linehan studied meditation with a Buddhist roshi (master) and a contemplative Catholic priest, and mindfulness is at the core of DBT skills training. Group members are taught that there are three primary states of mind: reasonable mind, emotion mind, and wise mind -the last of which is an integration of the first two. That they have a wise mind is a revelation to most clients. Being in the state of wise mind adds intuitive knowing to emotional experiencing and logical analysis. It’s explained as, “learning to be in control of your mind, instead of letting your mind control you.” One of the skills taught in the Core Mindfulness module is how to be mindful without judging.

The Interpersonal Effectiveness module helps clients to learn how to ask for things they want and how to say “no.”  It teaches them to prioritize and self-validate in setting relationship boundaries. It teaches “what” and “how’ skills for getting reasonable things you want and not caving-in to pressure to do things you don’t want to do. The Emotion Regulation module helps clients to learn the role of emotions, positive and negative, and to deal with them in a balanced manner. It teaches them how to build positive experiences and avoid negative experiences, and to feel a sense of agency in their reactions to emotions. The Distress Tolerance module teaches such skills as distraction, self-soothing, and improving the moment. It includes thinking skills and physical techniques for tolerating stress without responding in extreme, self-destructive ways. It teaches the concept of “radical acceptance” of things that can’t be changed.

After finishing the Distress Tolerance module, the group starts on Core Mindfulness again; so group members get multiple exposures to all four modules. I personally think that the skills taught in DBT groups can also help people with other diagnoses. I’ll continue to write about DBT in my next post.