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Many individuals experience emotions that seem too strong to process normally. When that happens, some people find constructive ways to deal with the emotion. Exercise or talking with a counselor or other trained individuals may help alleviate the strong emotions that may be overwhelming.

However, some individuals struggle to find a way to positively expend the energy that emanates from their emotions. When a positive outlet is not found, many turn to unhealthy behaviors, including nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI). These behaviors include cutting, burning or other types of harm done to one’s own body in an effort to escape the strong negative emotions experienced. Those feelings may include pain, sadness, depression, guilt or shame.

While there has been more attention given to NSSI in research, there has been little investigation into the connection between guilt and NSSI. To address this gap in research, Yoel Inbar from the Department of Social Psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands led an analysis of the role of guilt in the motivation to hurt oneself.

The researchers wanted to compare how guilt impacted the motivation involved in self-harm versus that connected with ambiguity or sadness.

The researchers assigned 46 college students to one of three groups that were designated for neutral, guilty or sad conditions. The students were told to think back to an event that provided feelings matching their assigned group and write about the intensity of that emotion, both when the event occurred and when remembering the event.

The students were then given a set of electric shocks. Following the initial shock, they were given the freedom to increase or decrease the strength of five additional electric shocks.

Following the series of electric shocks, the researchers evaluated the participants to determine levels of guilt and sadness. The researchers discovered that the participants assigned to the guilt group chose to increase the intensity of the shocks they received following the first shock. Those who were assigned to the neutral group or the sad group did not increase the intensity of the shocks.

In addition, those who were asked to reflect on a situation involving guilt reported feeling less guilty following the series of shocks than they had prior to the shocks.

The information provided by the study shows evidence that guilt is a motivator for injuring oneself. The participants each reported that there was no knowledge of this relationship during the exercise, but it may have been an intuitive understanding.

Inbar explains that these types of moral judgments are common. Some who experience guilt may find positive ways to diminish the emotion, but others may feel that their only recourse for guilt is the experience of a negative situation, such as self-inflicted pain.

Future research may include examining whether those who believe that self-inflicted pain is a solution may also consider a good deed as a remedy if the opportunity was available.

The findings of the study are published in the journal Emotion.

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