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.
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
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.
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
- cutting the skin with a sharp object
- pulling hair out
- punching oneself, walls, or other objects
- burning the skin
- bruising the body or breaking bones
Other forms of self-destructive behavior may include a person:
- not managing or completing different obligations, such as at work or school
- not taking care of their health
- isolating from others
- heavy use of drugs or alcohol
- having sex without a condom or other barrier method
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.