Research has shown that there is a link between impulsive behaviour and the tendency of people to harm themselves without wanting to die. The study published in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested that non-suicidal injury (NSSI), when people harm themselves without wanting to die, is associated with impulsive behaviour, but only under specific conditions associated with negative emotions.
Importantly, this research also identifies potential areas of treatment for a select group of individuals deemed as high-risk for suicide attempts. "People who self-injure, both more frequently and more recently, also make more impulsive choices when experiencing distress than those who self-injure less frequently and/or less recently," said Kenneth JD Allen.
"Importantly, this suggests the response to actual, perceived, or even self-criticism may be a promising treatment target, particularly for those at highest risk of future suicide attempts," added Dr Allen. Common examples of NSSI include cutting, burning, or hitting oneself. NSSI is common, especially among adolescents and young adults, even those without any diagnosable psychiatric conditions.
While NSSI occurs without the intent of suicide, it is also one of the strongest predictors of future attempted suicide, so determining shared and distinct factors involved in non-suicidal and suicidal forms of self-injury is critical. Dr Allen explained that while NSSI without suicidal intent may be a common behaviour, the potential for serious consequences is significant, as research suggests these events are equivalent to prior suicide attempts in predicting future suicidal behaviour.
"The clinical implications of this research could be substantial," said Dr Allen. "When and where the NSSI occurs in conjunction with negative mood and accompanying impulse control problems might inform assessment, treatment, and prevention of both NSSI and suicide, which is really what we're here for," he said. The published research shows the results of new laboratory tasks created by Dr Allen and his colleagues addressing the discrepancy between self-reported impulsivity in people who engage in NSSI and their lack of impulsive behaviour on existing laboratory tasks.
The impact of this indicates that NSSI is associated with impulsive behaviour, but only under specific conditions associated with negative emotions. Although previous studies did not identify impulse control deficits in NSSI, Dr Allen's research demonstrates that people who self-injure have more difficulty controlling impulses directly motivated by negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, and sadness.
Dr Allen's studies suggest that difficulty controlling impulses motivated by distress might help explain the link between NSSI and future suicide. This impairment is specific to negative emotional action termination, or the final stage of response inhibition, meaning that such individuals might only act impulsively once their negative feelings reach a certain level of intensity. "Therapeutic interventions focusing on increasing 'mindfulness' could be particularly useful in helping individuals become aware of their emotions and accompanying urges before they become overwhelming and reach this breaking point," said Dr Allen.
"Ultimately, our findings suggest that once someone gives in to an impulsive urge to self-injure, they may find it especially difficult to stop, whereas if that person can catch this urge early on, they may be able to choose a more adaptive strategy to reduce their unpleasant emotional state, such as exercising or listening to music," he added.
(With inputs from agencies.)