The Science of Self-Mutilation

Self-mutilation, often referred to as self-injurious behavior or SIB, is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. SIB is not meant as a suicide attempt, but often seems to be a way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration. In this week’s episode of Taboo: Strange Behavior, Bethany Scheiderman suffers from trichotillomania, the compulsion to pull out her own hair. As a young aspiring model, this disfiguring disability is very frustrating to Scheiderman, but self-injurious behavior is not uncommon. Most of us at least know a friend or two who chews their nails down to the ragged quick. In fact, even animals sometime engage in harming themselves.

Self-Mutilating Animals

Scientists have noted for years that primates in captive situations are prone to self-mutilation, especially if keep in solitary conditions. Rhesus macaques may bite themselves and many studies have been done attempting to explain this behavior. Scientists think that self-injury in primates may occur when the subject is extremely bored. A bored animal may pace and offer stereotypical behavior that eventually involves biting at their own flesh.  Primates that are extremely frustrated may also present self-harming behaviors. If the animal cannot escape or attack when something or someone induces fear, it may bite itself in the same spot repeatedly. These injuries will start small and eventually become obvious. Sometimes the animals may even lose limbs because the damage is so severe.

Some animals in our homes may even self-mutilate. Parrots are known for over-preening, feather plucking and even picking open their flesh with their beaks. Feather plucking is often a symptom of boredom. Parrots are highly intelligent creatures and with nothing to do but preen, they eventually get overzealous. Moments of high stress can also trigger plucking. However, just like with Scheiderman and her hair pulling, sometimes the reason why a parrot plucks remains a mystery and a difficult behavior to overcome.

Why We Do It

Scientists are not entirely sure how self-injurious behavior starts and struggle to solve it. The Mayo Clinic notes that, “While self-injury may bring a momentary sense of calm and a release of tension, it’s usually followed by guilt and shame and the return of painful emotions.” Self-injury is an impulse and may accompany a variety of mental illnesses, such as depression, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder.

Trichotillomania, the act of pulling out one’s own hair, is not a common affliction and one that doctors still do not entirely understand. Symptoms usually begin before the age of 17 years-old. The person afflicted may pluck not just their head, but other areas of the body, such as the eyebrows, eyelashes or even body hair. Medical professionals think it may affect as much as 4% of the population and women are four times more likely to be affected than men. The disorder may be linked to issues with body image, but the cause and the treatment are still not entirely agreed upon in the medical field.

Taboo behaviors are sometimes not things we choose to engage in, but happen all the same. Scheiderman wishes she didn’t have to hide her head, but has not been able to overcome her disorder. Not yet, anyway. In Taboo: Strange Behaviors, she shares not just her affliction, but how she may find a way to overcome it. Tune in June 24 at 10PM et/pt.

Comments

  1. Nicole Santamorena
    New York
    June 24, 2012, 9:45 pm

    I am a 17 year girl who suffers from Trich, I live in New York and want to go into design as well. I really wold love to contact Bethany, I feel like we have a lot in common, and I would just love to talk to her. I actually cried when I watched this…. finally someone like me! I was so happy that this episode aired, if I could in any way contact Bethany I would be so glad

  2. Anonomous
    Arizona
    June 25, 2012, 3:13 pm

    I feel for you Nicole and Bethany, I am 33 years old and have had Trich since around 8th grade. It is a daily struggle to fight the urge to pull and sometimes it is too much. It puts a strain on social actions and relationships because of the embarrassment but I survive through it and will always survive through it because even though I have this condition I am still proud of who I am.

  3. Shan
    Connecticut
    June 26, 2012, 8:06 pm

    I am 34 and have had trichotillomania since I was about 12 or 13. I admire Bethany so much for having the courage to be profiled on Nat Geo!!! Besides my immediate family, only my best friend knows about this. I never tell anyone, because I could imagine the thoughts people would have were they to find out (mine is rather coverable, although some areas of hair are rather thin), they would not understand and just think I’m crazy.
    I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to Bethany for stepping up- its beyond amazing to know that there are others out there, it’s a feelin that’s hard to describe. We don’t see many programs on the subject.

  4. pablo
    virginia
    June 27, 2012, 12:44 am

    Ey Bethany if you ever read this you should know that you are beautiful and i like how you can make hats thats cool, have a good one :)

  5. coral cordova
    collinsville, illinois
    June 27, 2012, 12:52 am

    Hi, my name is coral and I am 20 years old and suffer from trichotillomania. I was diagnosed when I was 15 and have been doing it since I was 13. It is my biggest self conscious worry and I still do it just as bad. Like Bethany I sleep alot and am very secluded…when I was in middle school I used to always clip my hair over the bald spot hiding it. One day my mom bought me a wig that I would wear to school but one of my friends told someone about it and I began to get teased by the other students and they would try to pull the wig off my head when I wasn’t looking as a cruel joke. Once I got to high school I got better at managing my hair and bought tracks to cover up the bald spot and to blend in with my hair…no one knew about it except my family. I never go to hair salons because I’m afraid someone I know might be there. The reason I pull is because I’m mixed and I have alot of wiry course textured hair and I convinced myself that if I pull them out they might grow back in a more fine soft texture even though I know that won’t happen. It’s hard to stop and therapy and medications haven’t helped. I’m extremely self conscious because I can’t wear my hair naturally curly or down and it takes hours to fix my hair by straightening it and putting in extensions. now that I’m pregnant I haven’t done much about my appearance, I just wake up and put my hair up in a bun. This disorder is also one of the main reasons I dropped out of the navys basic training because we had to cut our hair short and couldn’t wear clips or hair bands we had to wear our hair down naturally. All my life I’ve been told Im beautiful and I get asked to model but I’m scared to because of my hair…people may think I’m beautiful but I feel hideous… I’ve always wanted to be a Singer, actresss or model but it seems this issue keeps standing in my way.

  6. joe curtin
    new york
    July 2, 2012, 7:52 am

    Guys get trich too. I’m 44 and have had it since the age of 15-16, in my case it’s my beard hair that I pull out, I’ve never had the urge to touch my regular hair. But for a guy, ruining the beard is not fun. It’s the same relief of tension that Bethany described.

    Trich is a classified as an OCD symptom and it is similar to OCD repetitive behaviors. Research at Yale Medical Center suggests that OCD and trich respond to very high doses of SSRI medications combined with low dose anti-psychotic meds. So getting a normal level dose of Paxil or a similar med is not enough.

    I agree that trich is anxiety related but I’ll start pulling out hairs when I’m relaxing with a book just as often as when I’m freaking out about something. So it’s not the just the obvious types of stress that trigger it.

    As far as shrinks go in the U.S., they seem to know almost nothing about OCD and trich. Naturally they’ll tell you they know everything and hand you a prescription for a common anti-depressant.

    Bethany is very brave and has done a great service for people by coming forward like that.

  7. Karen
    Massachusetts
    July 2, 2012, 11:42 am

    Bethany, I hope you read this blog and know that you are not alone. I also wanted to let you know that you are an awesome artist! I saw the one piece that won first place and I fell in love with it. You should start a website and sell your artwork. I would definately buy it! Stay strong!

  8. Stephanie
    St. Louis
    July 3, 2012, 6:41 pm

    Bethany,

    I watched the show – love the hats and your beautiful pictures!! You really should build a website! Never stop creating, you have such talent and I wish you the best!

  9. Aliana
    Arizona
    July 3, 2012, 6:41 pm

    I am 31 years old, and have also struggled with trich. I began pulling when I was 11 years old and was often ridiculed and bullied because of my disorder. I remember wearing the hats and constantly checking them to make sure that my bald spots weren’t showing. I would pull until my fingertips became sore and would continue pulling after that. I can happily say, I have been “pull free” for four years now, although the damage to my scalp is permanent. I have a pot on the top of my head htat is considerably thinner than the rest. I have to tease my hair and use a product to give the illusion that my hair is thick on top. I still “play” with hair however, now I just seem to break the split ends off instead of pulling the hair out.

  10. Anon
    United States
    July 19, 2012, 11:17 pm

    Hi Nat-Geo and Bethany. I am a young woman with a degree in photography (I am an artist as well) and I too have some similar issues, though not Trich. However, I identify with Bethany a lot. I, also, am into art (photography, jewelry, graphic design web design, drawing, etc.) and agree that being artsy is the way to go when you have similar issues. That being said, I would very much like to reach out to Bethany and possibly set up a photo shoot with her. Regardless of whether she has hair or not, issues or not, she is absolutely beautiful inside and out and I would love the chance to prove that to her. She CAN be a model if that is what she truly wants :) She has inspired me to possibly create a series of photos based on what Nat-Geo has described in her episode as Taboo. I also want her to know that she should go to school for art and fulfill her dreams of being a graphic artist (or whatever her ultimate goal may be – as many of us know that can change a lot before, during, and even after school). I went to school for photography and am going to continue my education in other areas of design. I also do craft fairs and events such as these.

    That being said (yes, it was a mouthful :P) I would love to reach out to Bethany if possible.

  11. Linda Heath
    Modesto California
    July 23, 2012, 12:51 am

    Your courage is incredible, we all bless you for that. Your focus on you incredible artistic ability. One of my twin 8 year old grand daughters has had many issues this far and she loved art. I would love for her to see what you artistic capabilities are, I want her to know what is available to her, if you could email a note and let me know where we can email you so she can exchange art work with someone as special as you (our email address is [email redacted] any note or picture would
    Be so appreciated . It will help
    Me give her a positive direction. We would love to write letters to you her name is Isabella Perez [address redacted] , I really think this type pen pal friend ship. Would really help I sure hopes this memo helps
    God bless n protect I so
    Very proud of you. And I hope we can exchange motes

  12. Thomas
    Louisiana
    July 23, 2012, 1:00 am

    Hi I’m 21 years old, I’ve never been diagnosed but I’ve had the same problem as Joe since I was 13. I can be relaxing, stressing over a test or final or hanging out with friends but if my hands aren’t occupied I’ll start pulling out my beard which is why I can never grow one. I always pull it out before it can, I’ve never understood why but it feels like relief of the stress in my life almost then people stare at the bald spots in my beard and I used to just lie and say it was acne scarring but now I just shave every morning so theres nothing to pull.

    I never knew about this disorder and its nice to know there are others out there who deal with this too.

  13. Gabriel
    Reno
    July 28, 2012, 10:37 pm

    Having Trichotillomania is a daily stress, even when I’m not pulling I feel the guilt and embarresment every time I feel my scalp. I’m a 19 male who “likes” to pull his hair from around the temple of the brain to all around the front hairline. So you can imagine I don’t llike haircuts and I like to have medium-long hair. Every time I encounter myself with another human I remind myself of the dark times when I pull my hair as I fix my hair knowingly I wont be able to completely cover my bald scalp.
    I haven’t gone to a doctor yet becuase theres not really a reason for, no cure. I do understand the options I can do to treat it but my mother is completely oblivious, her thoughts on this subject is why do I do it. Hopefully a doctors appoitment will help her understand.
    So far this disease isn’t 100% curable for me, at times I put in all my effort to resist the urge to pluck a hair. Sometimes I’ll make through those urges without pulling a hair. It’s unconscious when I stop pulling my hair during those urges. Next thing I know my fingers are in my hair just about ready to pull. The tension gets greater when I try to stop, I find myself in a mind battle while holding a strand of hair deciding if I want to pull it or not. sometimes survive those urges and win for the day, but they return again tomarow.
    I have great hope to cure myself and stop pulling forever. I’ll continue to fight the urge until it goes away, even if it take 30 years.
    RESIST THE URGE!
    your in control.
    Mind over matter: The ability to control your body, your state of being, and to mentally deal with any situation becuase you decided to do so.

    For anything email me
    gabe147@gmail.com

  14. Marnus
    South Africa
    August 27, 2012, 3:43 pm

    I feel for this young lady, I never thought this is a disorder, I just kept on doing it to my self thinking I’m doing it out of boredom, I dont pull out my hair but my beard. As a 23 year old male struggling to grow a beard because of this, it is really inspirational to see others doing this and some recovering from this disorder. Must really thank this girl for sharing her story with people…

  15. Joshua
    Buffalo
    September 28, 2012, 11:02 am

    Dear Beth,I dont have trich but i can definitly understand the loneliness and isolation it causes and i can definently use a friend who can relate. so if you somehow chance to read this please email me. Joshua.ford@live.com

  16. Luis
    Chile
    October 19, 2012, 10:24 pm

    I don’t know if you’re gonna read these words one day. Anyway, your story’s beautiful and inspiring. I got another kind of illness that keeps me isolated and by watching your life’s story I just got a very special feeling :) You’re talented and I hope you will keep on this way.

  17. Anonymous
    October 25, 2012, 11:46 pm

    Bethany, u are so brave to go on tv and talk about this. I have had this condition since I was 11 years old, I am now 40. When I was young there was not a name for it and no one had heard of it. I also felt the shame with a bald spot! I eventually learned to control it. I still pull some when I get nervous, but I can make myself stop. There is hope hang in there!

  18. sabrynna
    Brazil
    November 10, 2012, 9:27 pm

    Bethany, i feel exactly as you.
    I suffer since the childhood with Trich.
    my hairless is higher

    for you, or others with the same problem, my e-mail is

    sabrynna_sabrynna@hotmail.com

  19. harris armstrong
    California
    November 29, 2012, 1:00 pm

    its my Twitter @ARMSTRONGHARRIS ! bethany if you see this, please follow me! We have a lot in common!

  20. Jazmyn
    USA
    December 22, 2012, 7:44 am

    Ur not alone. Today is my birthday and I turn 31 years old… I have had trich since I was 9. It came on suddenly, but I’ve had a very traumatic childhood so not surprised I ended up with some kin of affliction. I am a model too… A pretty well known one, but not as well known as I know I could’ve been if I didn’t have trich. I hate it… But I’ve still had a beautiful life, been in love, had a child and am currently 7months pregnant with another… In life, u gotta take the bad with the good. At least we are here. My prayers and well-wishes go out to U… I hope U find ur happiness and not let this (as awful and saddening as it is to U) run Ur life… There’s so many more important things in this life than hair. At least that’s what I’ve learned… And know that ur not alone…. Kisses ;)

  21. Shashank
    India
    January 4, 2013, 3:42 am

    Hi Bethany .
    I want talk with You.
    I Love Your Artwork . I am also Learn to the Art. I Am New comer Animator (Fresher) & You want show Me Your Artwork?
    (Please……..) My Email /shashank.my.name@gmail.com

  22. Aaron stone
    Augasta georgia
    January 7, 2013, 3:34 am

    I find your condition to be interesting i cant say much more but you are amazing :)

  23. Jessica
    January 7, 2013, 7:38 pm

    Hey, my name is Jessica. Sorry I can’t say I understand you and all, because there is nothing wrong with me. But I just want you to know that there are people out there, like me, who wouldn’t care about your condition at all. I am very shy too and I love to paint. If we ever met I would love to be friends, hair or no hair :)

  24. Victor
    Hungary
    February 14, 2013, 9:25 am

    Hi all. I’m 35, male, and have had this disorder for ~24 years. When it started my father had the doctor check the bald spots on my head because he feared of an infection. I never told it, not even to my father.

    Thinking back now, I’m just realizing that it was just the time when my parents started shouting at each other and thinking about having to divorce. A hell for a child.

    I got to know that this was a common disorder only 1-2 years ago. I’m amazed at the fact, and a bit relieved, that 4% of the ppl actually do this :) You know I’ve never seen ANYONE else doing it, except for the girl on NatGeo.

  25. Victor
    Hungary
    February 14, 2013, 9:36 am

    Oh – and one thing to add. An ordinary person will never know the kind of feeling this comes with. Sound stupid, but it’s something like having a good shower after a long day, or heating yourself with water on a hot day, or… something like removing some dirt. I always wondered if this behaviour of mine was some kind of grooming, the same thing that primates do with each other. I know there are some people who groom their partner frequently, mostly women. This involves the pulling out of “unnecessary” hair from the partner’s face. Just interesting :)

  26. MV
    MN USA and India
    May 4, 2013, 5:09 am

    Well first thing – was just going through TV today and got the clip of this show. Me and My wife stopped and watched full show.
    Thanks Bethy (tried to search on FB, but couldn’t) and Thanks NG.
    I am 32, and now I know the name of ‘activity’ which make me feel relax from last 15 yrs!!!
    In starting I had gone for Medical consultation, however it proved of no use (both in India and USA), the prescription was not helpful.
    Now after marriage, I feel more confident, the hobby/activity is less. I have been through much of what others shared above.
    the remedy – keep yourself busy, pluck if it becomes irresistible (no shame, no one is perfect). Now i feel urge to pull ‘White hairs, out of black hairs’, sometimes multi fold hairs, multi mouth hairs etc. I can keep my figure to exactly the ‘Hair’ which is having some abnormality (multi mouth/strained hair etc.), sometimes irritation because of hair dandruff or unclean head (so take daily shower with shampoo – any , I tried branded shampoo from top companies, but it does not helps, just keeping head clean without dust/moisture helps) than use of hair oil, to keep the strain due to dry head skin also helps. Keep head hairs short, so that they cannot be pulled by fingers. Also shaving head during rainy/monsoon season helps. But nothing is 100%, if the urge comes to pull, do it.
    There are many local old barbers in India, who have seen such thing, they call it ‘CHABII’ (in Hindi, no English Translation). Few wise ones have old therapy, which can be effective, no guarantee for FDA, no test data. Only on faith.

  27. Rosalie
    New York City
    May 7, 2013, 10:36 pm

    I hope Bethany can read this….

    I have trich as well, it developed in high school and comes and goes. As a lady, I was very self conscious of minor bald spots that I could mostly cover. But I live close to the ocean and love to swim, so you can imagine once my hair was wet, the patch or patches would become very visible. It caused me to stop swimming and I always had an excuse. This lack of self control prompted me to research just what it was that I was doing to myself. I did not even know it had a name, or what caused it. In general, we know its a compulsion, and everyone seems to enjoy it, but hate the side effects.. RIght.

    One day, however, I had a bold and personally controversial idea. It was when I was shaving my legs, I thought, well I could never pull these hairs out. ANd then I thought, if I had no hair, I would not be able to pull out my hair. Well I did not shave my entire body, but I did use clippers to cut my hair really short. People consider myself a good looking woman, and many models these days have a stylized crew cut. Doing this gave me a tremendous sense of control and self confidence. The hair was also short enough so that I could not grip my hair to pull it out. I get many compliments to my look. It has been over 7 years now, and I am still wearing my short hair, which I change color because it is so short and easy.

    Here is a link to google image search of models with shaved heads http://tiny.cc/tlvqww. You can see all the beautiful, hot women with short hair. They are models.

    So this dramatic move became a defining moment for me. It really was the time I came into my own, fully confident and realized. My image change also symbolized my mental transformation. The trich is a catch 22. Although the causes are somewhat ambiguous, we all can say that it is some sort of anxiety that underlies the compulsion. So the more we pull, the more we have visible hairlessness. These patches without hair cause more anxiety, which causes more pulling and the cycle goes on and on. Just breaking the cycle, for me, was when I did not have to fear people seeing my head with patches, and I could not pull the hair out either because it was too short. So I really put a major stop to the the place where I pulled and the effect of little bald patches. These helped my confidence dramatically, and i ended up going out more. It was kind of like a snowball of positive energy that I rode. I actually went almost 8 months without any compulsion.

    Eventually, some down times did cause the Trich to come back, and I ended up pulling some arm hair. Which is very minor, I really have minor issues with this. I still know the Trich is never going away, but it had a lot to do with your emotions. I was able to get out of the downward spiral and have come out feel more powerful than ever. Bethany, I know cutting your hair short, may not be something you would do, but I think you would love beautiful with short hair. And that may just give you the boost to over come the more severe side of Trich. Remember the more confident you are, the more you want to be around other people. With a new look that can’t ever reveal your Trich, you will end up going out more, feeling better, which in turn, you are not home and alone as much, giving you less time to feel anxiety and most importantly, less time to act on your compulsions. I do not get the compulsions when I am aronud other people. So try it! Get your Trich under control, promise yourself to not do it so that your hairless spots are cleared up, no matter how long. Then make it a point to be around friends, family and any people, even if its the library, mall or museum. Get out and beat this!

    pls email me if you like – rosalie (dot) macdowell (at) gmail (dot) com

  28. Erica J
    Colorado, U.S.
    May 8, 2013, 10:08 am

    Hello Nat Geo and Bethany! I don’t think trich is as uncommon as you think, especially considering all the comments that are already on here! I am 23 and have suffered with trich for over 10 years. I pull my eyelashes and eyebrows and am just currently learning the tools I need to combat this disorder. It is SO great that Nat Geo is doing a piece on trichotillomania so that the word gets out about it. However what I didn’t like in this article was the use of the word ‘disfiguring’.. Trich is not a disfigurement, we are not deformed because we pull our hair. It does not take only hair to make one beautiful, so remember that fellow trichsters! We are all here for you Bethany, thanks for being so brave and going on television to spread the word. Much love! <3

  29. Jesse M
    May 21, 2013, 10:55 am

    hello, i really really would like to contact with beth. i don’t have trich and indeed im not even from USA but i think i fell in love with this girl she seems to be so sweet and her beauty it’s totally out of this world ;D

  30. Lilly
    July 1, 2013, 5:36 pm

    I’ve had the same thing when I was a kid, but nobody knew what’s going on. It started just like in Bethany’s case, when I was 13, and it stopped when I became an adult. It was never really visible, cause I have naturally thick hair and nobody noticed, just my mom and one guy at school.Maybe it just stopped, maybe it was because they diagnosed me as an OCD (I am affraid of contamination) and I started to take medicines. Sometimes it makes me wanna “do it” again but now I am 30 and I get over it quickly.
    Bethany, I was googling your name and I am surprised that you have no page or profile – I mean, you’re an artist and I was looking for your paintings/drawings. You should have a page for your art.

  31. Marco Alessandro
    Italy
    July 17, 2013, 5:13 pm

    I won this kind of mutilation! Ask me how it is a free and sharing trasfer of my crearive idea that agrren all the people , to stop to put on hands on the heads… It is a very creative idea,
    I ‘m a crearive man , a normal work and with the same creative colours and ceeatibe idea as Bethany. Sometimes i come back in thesame situations, but only for one kinite, and my idea agreen allowed me to stopped and make a “movement” with my hands tha allowed me to forget the tricotillomaniac movement!!
    Trust in me!
    If some doctor want to contact me i will be very happy to explin how to stopped it!!
    thoralex1@yahoo.it. Also in facetime by apple.. Excuse me for my scolastic English,
    Thinking in a better world for all:
    Marco Alessandro