Self-Harm Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Often times the signs of self-harm can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of self-harm.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Cutting, burning, hair-pulling, or breaking one’s bones are all forms of self-harm or self-mutilation that an individual can inflict upon him or herself, usually during times when he or she is facing overwhelming or distressing emotions. Self-harm can also be an act of rebellion and/or the attempt to individualize oneself, a means to temporarily relieve intense anxiety, a way to control and manage pain, an attempt to break through emotional numbness, or an attempt to manipulate others. While self-harm can bring an immediate sense of relief for those who partake in it, it is only a temporary solution and the initial distressing feelings will end up returning once more. Furthermore, continued self-harm can lead to the development of permanent scarring and/or irreversible damage to the body.

While self-harm can be a hard cycle to break, there are a number of treatment options available that can help a person learn healthier ways of coping with his or her emotions. While it may seem impossible to stop something that you have become reliant upon for so long, with the right treatment and support, you can stop turning to self-harm for relief.


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

As is true for many other mental health conditions, there is no one factor that causes an individual to engage in self-harm. Generally speaking, self-harm is the result of an individual’s being incapable of properly coping with psychological pain in a healthy way. More specifically, those who engage in this type of unhealthy behavior have a hard time regulating, expressing, or understanding emotions. This complex mixture of emotions – which can include feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, anger, guilt, rejection, or self-hatred – can be a trigger for self-harm. Additional possible causes that can lead to the development of self-harming behaviors may include:

Genetics: When individuals are confronted with the presence of a mental health disorder, they are often left struggling with a number of unpleasant symptoms which may trigger the development of self-harm as a means of attempting to cope with these distressing symptoms. Such mental illnesses are known to have a genetic component, and when an individual has a close family member who has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, he or she is more likely to develop symptoms of that disorder as well. This means that when a genetic predisposition for a mental health disorder is present, there is also an increased risk for engagement in self-harming behavior.

Physical: Imbalances that exist within the neurotransmitters of the brain that are responsible for the management of a person’s mood and impulses can place an individual at a higher risk for beginning to engage in self-mutilating behaviors. This is especially true for those who lack appropriate coping skills or healthy support networks.

Environmental: There are a number of different influences that exist in a person’s environment that can trigger both emotional and psychological symptoms that are associated with mental health conditions. For example, living in a stressful home environment or being subjected to some form of trauma can lead a person to resort to self-harm in attempt to cope with the distressing consequences of such experiences.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of mental illness or illnesses
  • Being female
  • Being in the age range of 15-25 years old
  • Preexisting mental illness or illnesses
  • Poor impulse control
  • Exposure to or experiencing a trauma
  • Having inadequate coping skills
  • Being sexually confused
  • Lack of sufficient support system

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

Self-harm usually occurs in private with the individual going to great lengths to keep this behavior a secret from his or her friends and family. For this reason, the signs and symptoms are not always easy to spot. Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms that may act as indication that an individual is engaging in self-harm:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long sleeves and pants, even when it is hot outside
  • Having sharp objects on hand
  • Claiming to have frequent accidents and dismisses injuries
  • Spending a lot of time alone
  • No longer participating in things that he or she once enjoyed
  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships

Physical symptoms:

  • Fresh cuts or bruises
  • Scars
  • Broken bones
  • Scratches or scrapes
  • Burn marks
  • Missing patches of hair

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to focus attention
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Intrusive thoughts about wanting to self-injure
  • Detachment from surroundings / people

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Behavioral and emotional instability
  • Impulsivity and unpredictability
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and/or worthlessness
  • Guilty feelings
  • Defeatist attitude
  • Increased feelings of anxiety when one is not able to self-harm
  • Loneliness


Effects of self-harm

The effects of self-injury can cause a number of complications in the lives of those who engage in such behaviors, including both short-term and long-term effects. Not only are the results of self-harm physical, but there can result a number of psychological effects as well. If not properly treated, this type of destructive behavior will only continue to cause more damage on a person’s life. Some complications associated with self-harm include:

  • Worsening feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem
  • Worsening of underlying issues
  • Contracting infections
  • Hemorrhaging
  • Scarring or permanent damage to tissues
  • Anemia
  • Damage to one’s nerves
  • Vital organ damage
  • Organ failure
  • Bones that do not heal properly
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Depression
  • Extreme conflict within interpersonal relationships
  • Greater risk for substance use and abuse
  • Accidental death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

Self-harm is often indicative of the presence of a mental health disorder. The following are mental health conditions commonly associated with self-harm:

  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Schizophrenia
What Past Clients Say

I came here during the worst time of my life. I had so much anxiety coming in but the girls in the admissions area were so pleasant and answered all my questions. The hospital was clean and staff were friendly and helpful on the unit. The medicine they gave me helped so much, and I finally feel like myself again. If you’re willing to participate and go to all the groups, you will get something out of the program. I went right from inpatient to their day program for a week afterwards, and that helped me stay focused too.

– Alumni
Most Insurances Accepted

We accept all major insurances, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Medicare, most Medicaids, and TRICARE.  Please contact us for insurance verification and to learn more about treatment at MeadowWood Behavioral Health.

Seeing the Signs?
Take Our Quick Screening