University of Tasmania
whole_BrainKerryn1998_thesis.pdf (28.3 MB)

Psychological and psychophysiological mechanisms of self-mutilative behaviour/

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posted on 2023-05-27, 01:08 authored by Brain, Kerryn
The aim of this investigation was to clarify the processes that maintain self-mutilation in a sample of participants from the general community (n = 46). Specifically, 3 comparisons were conducted for each study. Firstly, results obtained for male and female self-mutilation participants were compared. The self-mutilative behaviour of males and females traditionally has been considered to substantially differ, although this notion has not been empirically verified. The present investigation aimed to clarify this issue. Secondly, results from individuals who were currently engaging in the behaviour were compared with a recovered selfmutilation group. Self-mutilation has been considered to be a behaviour that is extremely difficult to treat. It was anticipated that identification of factors associated with the cessation of selfmutilation would determine appropriate targets for treatment. Thirdly, aspects of self-mutilation for participants who had frequently engaged in the behaviour were compared with those who had infrequently self-mutilated. Although it has been accepted to be a habitual behaviour, research regarding the factors that contribute to the development of repetitive self-mutilation has been limited. The present investigation aimed to clarify the factors associated with the development of a repetitive pattern of self-mutilation. Where appropriate, comparisons between self-mutilation and non-self-mutilation groups were made. Five studies were conducted. Initially, details regarding this sample's self-mutilative behaviour were determined via structured interview. The nature and extent of self-mutilation described by the present sample was consistent with previous reports indicating the generalisability of subsequent results. The self-mutilative behaviour of male and female and current and recovered participants was comparable. Secondly, a range of psychometric measures were used to investigate the symptomatology associated with self-mutilation. Self-mutilation participants evidenced greater symptomatology than control participants. Limited sex differences were demonstrated. As expected, symptom severity and psychological distress were associated with repetitive self-mutilation. No significant differences between current and recovered self-mutilation participants were demonstrated for type or degree of symptoms presently experienced. However, the recovered group were significantly less distressed regarding the presence of symptoms. Results indicated that selfmutilation is not mediated by symptom severity alone. Investigation of behavioural motivation and the specific processes associated with the self-mutilative act were required in order to clarify the factors that maintain self-mutilation. Using a self-report measure, the third study investigated motivations for self-mutilation. Tension reduction was the primary motive reported for engaging in the behaviour. In particular, motivations for infrequent self-mutilation were not well defined. Results indicated that tension reduction associated with selfmutilation was maintaining the behaviour. The fourth study investigated the specific tension reduction aspects of self-mutilation. Psychophysiological and psychological responses to self-mutilation were assessed using guided imagery depicting the self-mutilative act presented in stages (Haines, Williams, Brain & Wilson, 1995). Results demonstrated that selfmutilation is an effective tension reducing mechanism. For those who were currently engaging in the behaviour, imagery depicting the act triggered an immediate reduction in psychophysiological arousal and unpleasant feelings. However, the recovered group interpreted self-mutilation as psychologically distressing even though a significant psychophysiological arousal reduction was evident with commission of the act. No significant differences in the strength of psychophysiological arousal reduction associated with selfmutilation were evident between frequent and infrequent selfmutilation groups, however the psychological benefits of the act for the infrequent group were limited. These results indicated that factors other than tension reduction maintain the behaviour. Using a self-report measure developed by the author, the final study investigated whether cognitive rehearsal of self-mutilation contributed to the performance of the behaviour. Results indicated that individuals do engage in cognitive rehearsal of self-mutilation and that this rehearsal contributes to the maintenance of selfmutilative behaviour. In summary, results of this investigation have contributed to the understanding of the complex nature of the precipitants of selfmutilation. These results also have indicated that the purpose of the behaviour itself is quite straightforward. Implications of results for the management of self-mutilation are discussed and directions for future research are suggested.


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Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Tasmania, 1998. Includes bibliographical references

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