Symptoms, Signs & Effects of Self-Harm

If you or your loved one are struggling with self-harm, Vermilion is here to help. Learning about self-harm can help you or your loved one manage its symptoms.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is defined as the deliberate injury to one’s own body without the intention of ending one’s life. Instead of being an attempt at suicide, self-injury is, instead, an unhealthy way of coping with emotional pain, intense anger, or frustration. While cutting is the most common form of self-injury, other behaviors can include burning, biting, pulling out hair, punching oneself, hair-pulling, breaking bones, or drinking a harmful substance. This intentionally harmful behavior usually occur when individuals are facing what seems like overwhelming or distressing feelings. Self harming behaviors can be eliminated and healthy coping skills learned with individualized treatment protocols.

Those who self-harm may feel that these behaviors are a way of:

  • Temporarily relieving intense feelings, pressure, or anxiety
  • A means to control and manage pain
  • Providing a way to break through emotional numbness (a way to feel anything at all)
  • Asking for help in an indirect way
  • An attempt to affect others by manipulating them, making them care, feel guilt, or make them go away

While self-harm provides individuals with an immediate release of tension and a sense of calm, the problem is that it is usually followed by guilt and shame. Additionally, the real underlying issues are never resolved and there is possibility of more serious and even fatal self-aggressive actions.


Self-harm statistics

The majority of people who engage in self-harming behaviors do so in private, making it difficult to determine any exact statistics on the true prevalence of these behaviors. However, professionals in the field estimate that, in the United States alone, approximately one in five women and one in seven men harm themselves in some way.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

While we are still unable to determine the exact cause for why an individual would start to self-harm it is believed that some of the most common hypothesis include a combination of the following:

Genetic: The disorders of which self-injury may be symptomatic are believed to have strong genetic links. For example, major depression can lead an individual to participate in self-harming behaviors, and depression itself is known to run in families. People who have family members who struggle with mental illnesses are at a higher risk of developing a mental health disorder as well, which may trigger these behaviors.

Physical: It is believed by professionals that when the neurotransmitters in the brain, which are responsible for a person’s ability to properly regulate emotions, become imbalanced an individual is more susceptible to developing a mental illness. This puts an individual at a greater risk for the onset of self-mutilating acts.

Environmental: A person’s environment can have a significant impact on whether or not they start to engage in self-injury. For example, those who grow up in households surrounded by constant chaos and instability may take comfort in self-harm because it provides them with something that they can have control over. Additionally, those who have gone through abuse or extreme trauma may find themselves participating in self-injurious acts as a way to find some sort of relief from internal emotions that are causing them pain.

Risk Factors:

  • Poor coping skills
  • Poor regulation of one’s emotions
  • History of depression
  • History of other mental illnesses
  • Impulsivity
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Lacking strong, healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Death of a loved one

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

The signs and symptoms of self-mutilation will vary from person to person and will depend on a number of different factors such as the method of self-harm and the length of time in which an individual have been hurting themselves. Some signs and symptoms of self-harm can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • No longer participating in activities that he or she once enjoyed
  • Spending excessive amounts of time alone
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants even in warm weather
  • Having frequent accidents

Physical symptoms:

  • Patches of missing hair
  • Scars
  • Often has bruises, scrapes, cuts, or scratches
  • Frequent, unexplainable broken bones

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Difficulty controlling impulses
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Chronic, uncontrollable thoughts about wanting to self-harm
  • Dissociating

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Increased feelings of anxiety and/or agitation when unable to self-harm
  • Excessive feelings of guilt
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings defeat
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Feeling lonely


Effects of self-harm

The long-term effects of self-injury are not only physically damaging, but can also cause a number of other negative complications in an individual’s life. Most consequences will be determined upon the method of self-harm being used. Some of these long-term effects can include:

  • Permanent scarring
  • Infected wounds
  • Severe bleeding
  • Substance abuse or addiction
  • Consistent and intrusive thoughts about the self-harming behavior
  • Anemia
  • Permanent tissue damage
  • Familial conflict
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, and disgust with oneself
  • Social isolation
  • Permanent numbness or weakness in certain parts of the body
  • Improper healing of broken bones
  • Multi-organ failure
  • Accidental death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

When someone is engaging in self-mutilation it is often the case that another mental health illness is present. Some of the most common disorders that are associated with self-injury include:

  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Substance abuse and addiction