Signs, Symptoms, and Effects of Self-Harm

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn More About Self-Harm

Self-harming behaviors are defined as behaviors that are a deliberate infliction of harm to one’s body. These behaviors can include burning, cutting, hitting oneself, banging one’s head against a hard object, or drinking harmful substances. While this behavior may seem like an attempt at suicide, in many cases it is not; most adolescents and adults self-harm as a way to regulate their emotions. Many adolescents and adults who hurt themselves are trying to cope with inner pain that they are unable to control or as a way to self-sooth feelings of anxiety. Additionally, self-harm has been known to help a person who is suffering from dissociation find a means of remaining grounded in reality because it allows them to feel physical pain.

Initially after an individual inflicts harm on themselves they may feel a sense of calm and a release of tension, however those feelings are only temporary. Shortly after these feelings dissipate they are replaced with guilt, shame, and the return of painful emotions. While self-harm may not be done in an attempt to die by suicide, it can lead to the possibility of more serious and even fatal actions.


Statistics of Self-Harm

Due to the fact that self-harm is usually something that people do in private, it is difficult to determine any exact statistics on the prevalence rate of these behaviors. However, experts in the field estimate that approximately 2 million people in the United States purposely hurt themselves in some way. While self-mutilation has historically been documented as being more common in women than it is in men, the number of men participating in such behaviors is believed to be steadily increasing.

Causes & Risks

Causes and Risk Factors for Self-Harm

There is not any one single cause that leads a person to start to engage in self-harming behaviors, but in general it is the result of an inability to cope with psychological pain or other life stressors in a healthy way. Individuals who self-harm have a hard time regulating, expressing, or understanding their emotions. Other reasons why an individual may self-harm include:

  • Manage or reduce severe distress or anxiety
  • Provide a distraction from painful emotions through physical pain
  • Feel a sense of control over one’s body, feelings, or life situations
  • Feeling anything at all, even if it is physical pain
  • Punish themselves for perceived faults
  • Communicate depression or other distressful feelings with outside world

Additionally there may be certain risk factors that can increase the risk of self-injury, which may include:

  • Being female
  • Age: those who are adolescents or young adults tend to self-injure more
  • Having friends who self-harm
  • Presence of certain mental health disorders
  • Excessive alcohol or drug use

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm

The signs and symptoms of self-harm will vary from person to person based upon each individual’s chosen method of self-injury. While any area of the body may be used for self-harm, it is more common for the arms, legs, and front torso to be the targets of self-harm because these areas are easily hidden by clothing. Examples of possible symptoms of self-harm may include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, even when it is hot outside
  • Spending excessive amounts of time alone
  • Keeping instruments used for self-injury nearby at all times
  • Difficulties with relationships
  • No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Claiming to have frequent accidents

Physical symptoms:

  • Scars
  • Frequent bruises, cuts, or scratches
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Broken bones

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Having difficulty controlling one’s impulses
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Dissociating
  • Persistent questions about one’s personal identity
  • Chronic, uncontrollable thoughts of wanting to self-injure

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Loneliness
  • Emotional instability
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Increased feelings of anxiety when unable to self-harm


Effects of Self-Harm

If not properly addressed, the long-term effects of self-harm can be devastating. Some of these effects can include:

  • Social isolation
  • Family discord
  • Becoming addicted to substances
  • Delusional thoughts
  • Consistent, obsessive, and intrusive thoughts about the behavior itself
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust
  • Long-term physical effects including: infected wounds, permanent scarring, permanent tissue damage, and multi-organ failure
  • Accidental death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders & the Complexity of Self-Harm

Self-harm is commonly a symptom of a mental illness. The most common co-occurring, co-morbid mental disorders that a person who self-injures may be struggling with can include:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse and addiction
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