Self-Harm Causes & Effects

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Understanding Co-Occurring Self-Harm

Learn about eating disorders & co-occurring self-harm

When a person cuts, pinches, burns, tears skin, pulls out his or her own hair, or prevents wounds from healing, it is known as self-injury, self-harm, or self-mutilation. Other self-injurious behaviors include punching oneself, hitting oneself with an object, running into hard surfaces, intentionally breaking bones, or consuming toxic substances. When this kind of behavior occurs, it is often in response to intense emotional pain or stress that an individual strives to exert control over. Once the physical harm has occurred, people who self-injure often feel a brief sense of relief, which is then followed by pangs of guilt and shame. Despite these negative feelings, self-injury is frequently repeated as an ongoing cycle of unhealthy coping.

Indicative of the presence of a mental health condition or conditions, ongoing self-harm can produce disastrous effects if this behavior persists. Sadly, many individuals who suffer from the compulsion to self-harm also suffer from eating disorders. For these people, the behaviors associated with their disordered eating patterns can bring about further detrimental consequences in all aspects of their lives. Fortunately, there are treatment options available that can address both eating disorders and the compulsive need to self-injure. Receiving this kind of treatment can help improve the lives of those who self-harm by teaching them appropriate coping skills and helping them overcome their destructive behavior patterns.


Self-harm statistics

The true prevalence rate of self-harming behaviors is not fully known, as most individuals who engage in self-mutilation put forth a great deal of effort to conceal this type of behavior. Some research has estimated, however, that one in seven males and one in five females partake in some form of self-injury.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

While researchers have yet to find a single, identifiable cause for self-harm, the causes and risk factors for this type of behavior is best explained by examining an individual’s genetic and environmental influences. These influences, in addition to other risk factors, are based on findings in research, including the following:

Genetics: Self-harm can sometimes be the result of an individual experiencing unpleasant symptoms associated with a mental health condition. Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, are known to have a genetic influence and can be present in individuals from the same pool of genes. Because mental illnesses can be heritable, it can be said that when a genetic predisposition for these conditions is present, there is an increased risk that a person will engage in self-harming behaviors.

Environmental: Certain influences from a person’s environment can trigger emotional or psychological symptoms that are commonly associated with mental illness. Overtly stressful home or work environments can cause so much distress that an individual resorts to self-injury. Additionally, exposure to trauma can lead to the onset of self-harming behaviors when an individual’s support network is not sufficient.      

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of mental illness
  • Preexisting mental illness
  • Poor impulse control
  • Exposure to trauma / experiencing trauma
  • Having inept coping skills
  • Confusion pertaining to one’s sexuality
  • Experiencing the unexpected death of a friend or loved one
  • Lack of sufficient support system
  • Having unstable emotions / mood

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms self-harm

Self-harm does not typically occur in the presence of others. Shrouded in secrecy, this type of unhealthy coping is often hidden from friends and loved ones so as to avoid any attention that would elicit advice that one should stop this kind of behavior. If you suspect that a friend or loved one is engaging in self-harming behaviors, it is vital to take note of the presence of the following signs and symptoms and encourage that he or she seek the necessary care to cease these behaviors:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Declined involvement in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Dismissing injuries as accidents
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Wearing pants and/or long-sleeved shirts to conceal wounds

Physical symptoms:

  • Broken bones
  • Scratches or scrapes
  • Bruising
  • Cuts
  • Burn marks
  • Patches of missing hair

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to focus attention
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Poor concentration
  • Intrusive thoughts about wanting to self-injure
  • Experiencing a sense of detachment from one’s surroundings

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Guilty feelings
  • Defeatist attitude
  • Increased feelings of anxiety when one is not able to self-harm
  • Loneliness
  • Pervasive feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and/or worthlessness


Effects of self-harm

The effects of causing harm to oneself can involve short and long-term effects. With regards to a person’s physical health, the listed outcomes have the possibility of occurring if this type of destructive behavior persists:

  • Infection
  • Hemorrhage
  • Scarring or permanent damage to tissues
  • Anemia
  • Damage to one’s nerves
  • Vital organ damage
  • Organ failure
  • Bones that do not heal properly
  • Unintentional death

Other areas of an individual’s life can be impacted by continued self-injury. Increased risk for the following effects is probable should an individual remain in the cycle of self-mutilation:

  • Intrusive thoughts about self-harm
  • Overwhelming compulsions to injure oneself
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Increased conflict within interpersonal relationships
  • Decline in quantity and quality of relationships with others
  • Greater risk for using or abusing substances

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

Self-injury is typically symptomatic of the presence of a mental health condition. As was previously mentioned, individuals who suffer from eating disorders sometimes also suffer from the compulsion to self-harm. In addition to eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder, the following mental health disorders are known to have self-harm as a symptom and are often the focus of treatment when an individual seeks care to eliminate this dangerous method of unhealthy coping:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Substance use disorders

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Struggling with an eating disorder and self-harm at the same time was unbearable. Getting treatment at Center for Hope literally saved my life.

– Anonymous Client