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.
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.