Self-Harm Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Delta Specialty Hospital helps individuals struggling with a mental health disorder build a strong foundation for long-term recovery. Serving Memphis, TN, Delta is the preferred provider of mental health treatment.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Self-harm, also called self-injury (SI), is the act of deliberately harming yourself, such as cutting or burning yourself. For the most part, those who are engaging in this self-destructive behavior are not doing so as an attempt at suicide. Rather these behaviors are done in an effort to deal with emotional pain, intense anger, or other frustration.  Cutting is an unhealthy way of coping, and if not properly dealt with it can end up causing significant health problems.

Self-harm usually begins in late teens or early adulthood. Sometimes individuals only self-mutilate a few times and then stop, while others engage in this behavior on a regular basis and have a difficult time stopping. Initially after engaging in self-harm behaviors, an individual will feel a sense of calm and release of tension. As these feelings begin to dissipate they are replaced with guilt and shame, followed by the return of the initial painful emotions the individual had been trying to get rid of. It is possible to overcome those urges you have to hurt yourself and find healthier ways to deal with your emotions. Rehab programs such as Delta Specialty Hospital may be successful in helping you recover from self-injury.


Self-harm statistics

It’s estimated that self-abuse that is non-suicidal occurs in about 1%-4% of adults, with the prevalence of chronic self-harm occurring in approximately 1% of the adult population. Self-harm rates in adolescents are especially high, with about 15% of adolescents reporting self-injury behavior. College students have the highest number of reported self-injury, ranging about 17%-35%. Those between the ages of 20-29 have the largest hospitalization rate for self-harm.

Self-harm rates are almost equal among genders, but the manner in which males and females choose to self-harm is different. Women are more likely to engage in cutting, while males are more likely to hit themselves.

These reported rates of self-harm may be slightly off, due to the shame associated with this harmful behavior. Some individuals may not report their involvement in this type of behavior.

Co-occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

Self-harm is a very serious condition that often occurs with other disorders. The following are the disorders that are associated with more dangerous and higher rates of self-injurious behaviors:

  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Trauma
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Dissociation and dissociative disorders
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Autism spectrum disorders

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors of self-harm

There is no single cause that leads to someone to self-harm. For the most part, self-harm is a result of an individual’s inability to cope with psychological pain. Additionally, individuals who self-harm may have a difficult time finding their place in society, and even their own family. They have hard times regulating, expressing, and understanding the emotions they experience. It is this mixture of emotions that triggers the self-harming behaviors in some. Some individuals may engage in self-harm for the following reasons:

  • Manage or reduce severe anxiety or distress
  • Provide a sense of relief
  • Provide a distraction from emotional pain through physical pain
  • Feel like they have some control over feelings or life situations
  • To simply feel anything when they are emotionally numb
  • Express internal feelings in another manner
  • Punishment for perceived faults
  • Communicate depression or distressful feelings

It is also important to note that there are some risk factors that may increase an individual’s chance of engaging in self-harm. Individuals who have friends that self-harm are more likely to engage in the same behavior. Additionally, people who harm themselves are more likely to be impulsive, highly self-critical, and be struggling with other mental health conditions.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

While cutting, which is the act of making severe scratches or cuts on different parts of the body, is the most common form of self-injury behavior, there are a number of other ways in which an individual can harm themselves. These can include:

  • Burning (with matches, cigarettes, or hot objects)
  • Carving symbols into skin
  • Breaking bones
  • Hitting or punching
  • Biting
  • Head banging
  • Piercing
  • Pulling out hair
  • Picking at wound that interferes with healing

There are many signs and symptoms that an individual is engaging in self-harm. These may include:

  • Scars from cuts or burns
  • Claiming to have frequent accidents
  • Fresh cuts, scratches, or bruises
  • Broken bones
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Spending a great deal of time alone
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants even in hot weather
  • Difficulties with interpersonal relationships
  • Emotional instability
  • Impulsiveness and unpredictability
  • Depressed mood
  • Irritability
  • Frequent thoughts of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness


Effects of self-harm

Effects of self-injurious behavior can be short-term or long-term. Effects of self-injury include:

  • Permanent scars
  • Disfigurement
  • Worsening feelings of shame, guilt, low self-esteem
  • Depression regarding the inability to stop self-injuring despite the consequences
  • Stress of providing many reasons for injuries
  • Social isolation
  • Stress of having to hide the self-abuse from others
  • Infected wounds
  • Substance use and abuse to self-medicate
  • Failure to address reasons behind the self-injury
  • Long-standing problems cause decreased enjoyment in other areas of life
  • Anxiety that someone will discover the self-mutilation
  • Death

2 years ago, I always wanted to self-harm. After attending therapy at Delta Specialty Hospital, my counselor was the best and was the most encouraging person. I am now self-harm free for almost a year!

– Former Patient
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