Are tattoos a form of therapy?

Fiona Fletcher Reid
By Fiona Fletcher Reid,
updated on Jul 24, 2020

Are tattoos a form of therapy?

Going under the inker’s needle might hurt physically, but there is some evidence that the painful process could be making you mentally stronger

As someone without tattoos – I’ve always been fascinated by people who choose to get inked. Apart from the pain of an electric needle puncturing my skin 50 to 3,000 times per minute, it sounds like a club I’d quite like to join.

There’s a camaraderie. I’ve seen acquaintances become best buds as they discuss the likelihood of time travel, a result of an obscure Back to the Future reference peeking out from an open shirt. I’ve seen couples commemorate anniversaries, and individuals immortalise their loved ones on their skin. It’s such a socially acceptable form of creative expression that one-fifth of British adults have at least one tattoo.

Why is tattooing a thing?

The origin of tattooing can’t be pinpointed to one specific place or time, and its purpose varies, depending on location and cultural norms. There are 49 known mummified remains which show evidence of tattooing, and they originate from all over the world including Alaska, Greenland, Mongolia, Egypt, and Siberia.

The earliest known evidence of tattoos can be found on Otzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy. The body is thought to date back as far as 3370BC and has a total of 61 tattoos. On closer inspection of Otzi’s bones, experts noticed that the placement of many of his tattoos matched areas which showed degeneration. It’s widely speculated that his tattoos were strategically positioned as an early form of pain relief, similar to modern-day acupuncture. Nowadays, tattoos are generally used to symbolise a feeling or to express identity.

Chemical reaction

To find out more about the physiological effects of tattooing, I spoke to Doctify-rated psychotherapist Mark Bailey — who has tattoos of his own — and he talked me through the associated brain chemistry.

It all starts with the anticipation phase, when your brain experiences a rush of adrenaline and dopamine. This can feel exciting and a bit scary, similar to riding a rollercoaster or going on a first date. Once the needle touches your skin, you produce adrenaline. “This can then help mask some of the pain,” says Mark, “although from experience it doesn’t always feel like any pain is being masked!”

Then come the endorphins. You know that amazing mood boost you get after an intense gym session? The tattooing process has the same effect. These feel-good chemicals reduce your perception of the pain in the same way as drugs like morphine or codeine. You’ll also feel a ‘natural high’ according to Mark. There is even research to suggest that getting multiple tattoos may affect your long-term ability to cope with stress, and improve your immune system by reducing the release of cortisol.

With this potent mixture of adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins taking hold, it’s easy to see why some people insist on going back for more. But what about the agony of getting inked? Is experiencing the pain of a tattoo therapeutic in some way?

You know that amazing mood boost you get after an intense gym session? The tattooing process has the same effect

Pushing through the pain

Some people say that living through the controlled, physical pain of a tattoo has made them more mentally resilient. I spoke to Rosalie Hurr, co-editor of Things & Ink magazine, who told me that for her, the pain of a tattoo is a mixture of emotions.

“At the beginning of the tattoo appointment I feel nervous and excited,” says Rosalie, “then I settle into the pain like ‘this is OK, I can cope with this’. There is definitely a ‘buzz’ especially if your tattooist is excited to do the tattoo too, and seeing the finished piece at the end is amazing. But there is also exhaustion, and it can take a lot out of me to push through the pain.”

Rosalie also describes the sense of empowerment that comes from travelling to a new tattoo parlour, and then spending the day with a complete stranger who will permanently alter her body. “As someone with anxiety, this is a huge achievement,” she tells me. “Throw in the mix the time spent in an uncomfortable position, and the pain of the actual tattoo, and I am a goddamn warrior.”

Dr Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray, a lecturer in Women’s Studies at Kings University College, says that getting tattoos has supported her journey with PTSD, depression, and auto-immune disease. In particular, tattooing has offered a positive transition from unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-harm. Kimberly finds that going under the needle holistically complements her professional therapy sessions, and offers a welcome distraction. The act of caring for her healing skin has also proved to be a powerful process.

“I’ve also been tattooing over my old cutting marks, and that has helped me come to terms with my past and move forward to a better relationship with my body and mind,” she tells me. “I can see the old marks through the tattoos, but no one else knows they are there, so it’s not really a secret, they’re right there, but only I know where to look to find them in the colourful patterns and shading.”

Both Kimberly and Rosalie highlight the significance of their relationship with each tattoo artist. Similar to a therapist, finding the right one can lead to a lifelong connection. Kimberly says the artist she currently works with has become a trusted friend. “The time I spend on his table is therapeutic in a sense. It is an escape from my world and everything outside, and it is a safe space, where we both attend, in some way, to me.”

Word of warning

According to Mark, this crossover between tattooing and self-harm should be approached with caution. “We know that a principal reason people self-harm is to relieve psychological distress. And if someone were getting tattoos to provide this relief, I would want to explore other ways for them to regulate their emotions.”

No matter what your reasons for getting a tattoo, there’s no doubt that it can have transformative powers. Whether you love the rush, or just the way it looks, it’s proof that your body – and mind – are stronger than you might think

Fiona Fletcher Reid

By Fiona Fletcher Reid

Fiona Fletcher Reid is a freelance writer and author, whose new book, ‘Work It Out’, is available now (Welbeck Balance, £9.99).

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