You've probably heard someone who has a few piercings or tattoos express that getting one makes them want to have more. They're addictive, they might say, but talking about addiction in any form is way more nuanced than just saying you like doing something.
Piercings can be psychologically "addictive," in the sense that many people will continue to see how far they can push their limits once they start getting them, says Stephanie Hutter-Thomas, a professional body piercer and PhD candidate studying the psychology of body art. "After conquering the anxiety of successfully receiving and healing that first body piercing, it becomes more exciting to choose the next one," she says. "The more exposure we have to a particular chosen event or stimuli, the less frightening or outrageous it seems because we slowly become desensitised." There's no real research that shows that people are physiologically dependent on getting body piercings, so Hutter-Thomas suspects that people are more likely drawn to the journey or process. "From my perspective, it becomes more a matter of pursuing or maintaining a sense of personal identity, rather than a pathology like addiction," she says.
But there is a lot going on inside your brain when you get a piercing, Hutter-Thomas says. When your body experiences anything physically intense, particularly stress and pain, your brain releases endorphins, she says. Endorphins then interact with your body's perception of pain, similar to the way opioids (like morphine or oxycodone) would, she says. "Unlike prescription medications, natural activation of our body's opiate receptors doesn't lead to physical dependency."
Is pain in itself addicting? Hutter-Thomas compares it to some of the "psychologically complex" practices within the S&M community (like choking or spanking). "Pain allows us to experience pleasure by presenting adequate contrast for our brain," she says. "Pleasure may feel nice, but it doesn't make us happy without something painful to compare it to." Many piercing enthusiasts describe the feeling after getting one as release and relaxation, she says. "Some people seek out a piercing procedure as a form of self-therapy, allowing them to release stress."
Of course, not everyone feels this way about their piercings, and for many people, it's just a way to express themselves. Hutter-Thomas says that someone's intentions for getting a piercing often dictate the type of experience they'll have getting it. "A person choosing a new piercing after spending their time diligently contemplating and preparing for it will often have a more positive experience during the procedure," she says. But, if you're just doing it because your friends are all doing it, she says you might not have as great of a time.
Having a solid intention for getting your piercing also means you probably won't regret it, and may pay a little more attention to cleaning the area properly than someone who just got a piercing in haste, she says. What you do with your body and how many piercings you get is entirely your choice — and if it feels good doing it, power to you. Walking away with a new piece of jewellery is just an added bonus.