History of Non-Suicidal Self-Injury and Emotion Regulation Problems

Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is the deliberate damage of body tissue without a conscious desire to commit suicide. This behavior most frequently functions to regulate negative emotions (Favazza, 1998; Klonsky & Glenn, 2009; Laye-Gindhu, & Schonert-Reichl, 2005; Swanell et al., 2008, Whitlock, Eckenrode, & Silverman, 2006). The purpose of the present study was to examine differences between individuals who have engaged in relatively few episodes of NSSI and individuals who have engaged in a greater number of lifetime NSSI episodes. Specifically, we hypothesized greater problems in emotion regulation among individuals with more lifetime episodes of NSSI.

Emotion regulation problems were entered into a MANOVA to examine group differences on these variables between the four NSSI groups based on lifetime NSSI history. Overall differences in difficulties with emotion functioning were found, F(3,158) = 4.03, p = .009, partial eta = .071. There were also differences in specific emotion regulation strategy problems: acceptance of emotional responses, impulsivity, emotional awareness, and emotional clarity. Pairwise comparisons revealed significant differences between the group coded 0 (no history of NSSI) and the group coded 3 (those who have engaged in 100+ lifetime episodes). Those with more frequent NSSI had significantly greater impairment in the following: non-acceptance of emotional responses, impulse control difficulties, lack of emotional awareness, lack of emotional clarity, and overall emotion regulation problems.

The findings of this study are supported by past research indicating a positive association between emotion regulation problems and self-injury, for both men and women (Gratz & Roemer, 2004). The implication is that young adults who have had a more pervasive NSSI history have dramatically greater emotion regulation impairment across multiple domains. Thus, emotion regulation can become a primary point of clinical intervention, such as to perhaps prevent individuals who “experiment” with NSSI from developing a more habitual coping mechanism of self-injury.

-Tatyana Kholodkov and Carolyn M. Pepper, University of Wyoming


Favazza, A. R. (1998). The coming age of self-mutilation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, 186,259–268.

Gratz, K. L., & Roemer, L. (2004). Multidimensional assessment of emotion regulation and dysregulation: Development, factor structure, and initial validation of the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 36, 41–54.

Klonsky, E. D., & Glenn, C. R. (2009). Assessing the functions of non-suicidal self-injury: Psychometric properties of the Inventory of Statements About Self-injury (ISAS). Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 31, 215–219.

Laye-Gindhu, A., & Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2005.) Nonsuicidal self-harm among community adolescents: Understanding the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of self-harm. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34, 447–457.

Swannell, S., Martin, G., Scott, J., Gibbons, M., & Gifford, S. (2008). Motivations for self-injury in an adolescent inpatient population: Development of a self-report measure. Australasian Psychiatry, 16, 98–103. doi: 10.1080/10398560701636955

Whitlock, J. L., Eckenrode, J. E., & Silverman, D.­­ (2006). Self-injurious behavior in a college population. Pediatrics, 117, 2283–2284.

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