Self-destructive behavior can range from a person isolating themselves from others to harming their own body. Traumatic experiences or mental health conditions may increase the risk of these behaviors.

Self-destructive behavior is when a person causes physical or emotional harm to themselves.

People who have experienced trauma may self-harm, but not every person who self-harms may have experienced trauma.

Self-destructive behavior may act as a temporary distraction or way of coping with emotional distress, pain, or discomfort. However, the distraction does not last, and self-destructive behavior can become a dangerous habit over time.

A mental health professional may help identify the causes of this behavior. They can also help you develop healthier, more effective coping methods, such as taking a walk, practicing deep breathing, or speaking with a loved one in times of stress.

This article discusses self-destructive behavior in more detail, including what it is, why it happens, and how to treat it. The article also answers some common questions about self-destructive behavior.

To help support your mental well-being and that of your loved ones, visit our dedicated mental health hub for more research-backed information and resources.

Black and white image of multiple people's shadows with two people walking in the backgroundShare on Pinterest
Scott Liao/EyeEm/Getty Images

Self-destructive behavior can vary among individuals. However, what these behaviors have in common is that they cause harm to the people involved. Some types of self-destructive behavior may include:

Other forms of self-destructive behavior may include a person:

A person who engages in self-destructive behavior may cause self-harm with or without suicidal intent. These behaviors are more common among younger individuals, and they are typically a sign of extreme emotional distress.

Negative thinking may also lead to self-destructive behavior. A study from 2020 found that depressed participants experienced more frequent negative thinking than those without depression. For some, negative thoughts may also lead to self-destructive behavior.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Click here for more links and local resources.

Many people who engage in self-destructive behavior try to hide this behavior from others. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed by their actions.

Knowing the signs of self-destructive behavior can help friends and family members support a loved one. Some of these warning signs include:

  • always wearing long sleeves or pants, regardless of the weather
  • unexplained scarring
  • fresh cuts or bruises on the skin
  • impulsive behavior
  • neglecting responsibilities, health, and social commitments
  • expressing helplessness when addressing problems

People dealing with self-harm are typically experiencing painful emotions. They may withdraw from friends or family or express feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness to those around them. And they may exhibit dramatic shifts in mood or impulsive behavior.

Individuals engaging in self-destructive behavior should speak with a healthcare professional who can help pinpoint the causes of their behavior and develop a treatment plan that includes more effective coping skills.

In many cases, self-destructive behavior is a way people deal with difficult emotions. The pain of self-injury may bring temporary distraction from overwhelming feelings.

Certain mental health conditions, such as depression and eating disorders, may make a person feel as though their life is out of control. People with such conditions may engage in self-harm to feel some level of control in their lives again.

In one study, researchers studied individuals living with anorexia. They found that 41% of these individuals reported self-injurious behavior in the last month.

These individuals had longer histories of treatment than individuals who did not self-harm. Most of the individuals who reported self-harming behavior had a secondary mental health condition.

People living with borderline personality disorder or depression also have a high potential for engaging in self-harm.

A common symptom of depression is a sense of emotional emptiness or numbness. Individuals with depression may also engage in self-harm as a way of feeling something physically. Self-harm could also be a form of punishing the self for perceived imperfections or mistakes.

Self-destructive behavior may feel like the only option in times of isolation and emotional pain. While there is no single reason for this behavior, it is often a sign of serious distress and challenges.

One study indicated that people with low levels of emotional intelligence are more likely to engage in self-destructive behavior.

Other risk factors for self-destructive behavior may include:

  • misusing alcohol or drugs
  • having a mental health condition
  • experiencing trauma
  • lacking social interaction
  • having friends or family members who engage in self-destructive behavior

People who engage in self-destructive behavior should speak with a mental health professional who can provide an evaluation.

Mental health professionals base their diagnosis for self-harm on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).

They may also use the Clinician-Administered NSSI Disorder Index (CANDI) to diagnose nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) disorder. This tool helps identify symptoms, which can aid in treatment planning.

NSSI involves self-harming behaviors that cause injuries of moderate intensity. These injuries are not the equivalent of suicide attempts, but the combination of self-harming behavior and suicidal ideation is fairly common.

The treatment for self-destructive behavior depends on the individual and the severity of their condition. Extreme cases of self-harm may necessitate a hospital stay. A hospital setting may provide a safe and structured environment to begin moving toward healthier, more effective ways of coping.

In mild or moderate cases, individuals may receive psychotherapy. During psychotherapy, a mental health professional examines an individual’s current symptoms and past experiences and creates an individualized plan to address their needs.

A mental health professional can help identify coping strategies to manage stress and difficult emotions. Individuals can work on using these coping strategies rather than turning to self-destructive behaviors.

Psychotherapy may also help someone identify negative thought patterns. Once people are aware of negative thoughts, they can develop strategies for managing them.

Below are some of the most common questions about self-destructive behavior.

How can someone stop self-destructive behavior?

Individuals experiencing self-destructive behavior should consider speaking with a healthcare professional to explore their treatment options. A healthcare professional may help a person develop coping strategies and manage negative thoughts and behaviors.

How can someone tell they are self-destructive?

It may be difficult to recognize the signs of self-destructive behavior, particularly if they come about gradually.

Keeping a diary to track emotions and behaviors may help a person recognize changes over time. A person can also speak with a mental health professional to help identify the signs of self-destructive behavior.

A person may be experiencing NSSI if they are engaging in self-harm, even if the behaviors are superficial or infrequent. A person may also recognize that they are isolating themselves from others, feeling down or overwhelmed, or having difficulty managing emotions or day-to-day tasks.

Is self-destructive behavior a trauma response?

One study showed that people who experience trauma are at a higher risk of self-destructive behavior. For certain individuals, self-harm is a trauma response. However, everyone responds differently to trauma, so going through a traumatic experience does not always cause self-destructive behavior.

Self-destructive behaviors can range from a person causing physical harm to themselves to thinking about hurting themselves. In most cases, this behavior is a response to painful emotions.

Individuals with certain mental health conditions have a higher risk of self-destructive behavior. Those who have experienced trauma are also more likely to engage in self-harm.

A mental health professional can support those with self-harming behaviors in exploring the causes of such behavior and begin to help them find new, more effective coping skills to minimize, or even end, their self-harm.