Causes, Symptoms & Effects of Self-Harm

Cedar Crest Hospital & Residential Treatment Center helps individuals who are struggling with self-harm find long-term recovery. Located in Belton, TX, Cedar Crest is the leader in mental health care.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Self-injury, or self-harm, is an act in which an individual intentionally harms their own body through a number of different methods such as cutting or burning. This behavior is not typically meant as a suicidal act, but is an unhealthy way in which an individual copes with emotional pain, intense anger, or serious frustration. However, there are times that some people unintentionally hurt themselves badly enough to cause death. While in the moment self-harm brings an individual a sense of calm and release of tension, after a short period of time those feelings are replaced by feelings of guilt and shame before the original painful emotions return. While the most common form of self-injury is cutting, other forms of self-harm may include:

  • Burning
  • Hitting or punching
  • Carving into the skin
  • Breaking bones
  • Biting
  • Piercing the skin
  • Pulling out hair
  • Constantly picking at or interfering with a healing wound

Usually individuals will target the legs, arms, and front torso for their mutilating behavior because these areas can be easily reached and hidden under clothing.

There are a variety of reasons why an individual may self-injure and the mixture of emotions that may trigger self-injury are very complicated. Some engage in cutting to cope with emotional pain and distress, especially feelings of self-hatred, worthlessness, loneliness, panic, rejection, confused sexuality, guilt, and sadness. It can be very confusing for someone who does not engage in self-injury to understand this behavior. Through engaging in self-harm, a person may be trying to:

  • Provide a distraction from distressing emotions
  • Manage or reduce severe distress or anxiety
  • Feel a needed sense of control over his or her body, feelings, and/or life circumstances
  • Punish him or herself for perceived faults
  • Externally express internal emotions
  • Feel anything at all – even physical pain – when he or she feels empty inside
  • Communicate depression or other distressing feelings to the external world

Self-harm is most often a behavior that one engages in behind locked doors. While self-injury may help some people cope with their problems, unfortunately the relief they experience is short-lived and tends to eventually only make matters worse. The good news is that with the proper therapy, medication, and self-care, most people who engage in self-injury are able to recover.


Self-harm statistics

Since most individuals who engage in self-injurious behavior keep their habit a secret, the statistics for self-injury are likely skewed. In the United States, each year approximately 2 million cases of self-harm are reported. Most people who cut begin to self-injure in the teen years— 90% of people who engage in this behavior begin during these years. Each year, one in five women and one in seven men engage in some form of self-injury.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

It’s thought that self-harming behaviors are not the result of one single factor but rather a number of causes and risk factors. The most common causes for self-injury may include the following:

Genetic: Many mental illnesses that can trigger cutting urges, such as borderline personality disorder and depression, are thought to have genetic components. People who are born into families that have a history of mental illness are at a greater risk for developing the disorder themselves.

Physical: A great number of mental illnesses lead to imbalances in the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that are involved in emotional regulation. People with these imbalances may self-injure in order to experience any emotions at all. Additionally, physical injury to the body results in a flood of pleasurable chemicals into the body.

Environmental: People who experienced abuse, especially as a child, are at a greater risk for self-injury later in life. These people may not have been able to express their emotions in a healthy way as children and use self-injury as a means to express their overwhelming emotions and cope with the trauma.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Being in teens and early 20s – most people who cut themselves often begin as teenagers and young adults
  • Having friends who also self-injure
  • Unstable personal identity or sexuality
  • Mental health disorders
  • Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

Since the methods of self-injury vary, it can be hard to determine if your loved one is engaging in self-injury. Some common symptoms of self-injury include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Wearing long pants or long-sleeved shirts even in the summer
  • Claiming to have frequent “accidents”
  • Spending a lot of time alone
  • Challenges with interpersonal relationships
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Withdrawing from social situations and other people
  • Unpredictable behaviors
  • Impulsivity and unpredictability
  • Bloody clothing, towels, or bedding

Physical Symptoms:

  • Scars from burns or cuts
  • Fresh scratches or cuts
  • Bruises
  • Broken bones
  • Bruises
  • Patches of missing hair

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Persistent questions about personal identity
  • Thoughts of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Emotional numbing
  • Emotional instability
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Increasing anxiety, especially when unable to self-injure
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Disgust


Effects of self-harm

Even though self-injury is not considered a suicidal act, it can still leave an individual with a vast number of long term effects. The consequences associated with self-injury can range from minor irritations to extremely serious injury and death. It is extremely important that people who self-injure seek treatment from a qualified professional as soon as possible in order to reduce the risk of any further or permanent damage. Effects from self-harm will depend upon the way in which an individual has chosen to harm themselves, but the most common long-term effects include:

  • Scarring
  • Injured tendons, nerves, blood vessels, and muscles
  • Permanent weakness or numbness in certain areas such as the hand
  • Loss of a limb
  • Brain damage
  • Organ damage
  • Broken bones
  • Social isolation
  • Feelings of shame, disgust, and guilt
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Worsening mental health conditions
  • Worsening physical health
  • Loss of interpersonal relationships
  • Infections
  • Septicemia
  • Suicide or suicidal behaviors
  • Accidental death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

Many people who self-injure struggle with a variety of mental health disorders. The most common mental illnesses that tend to be present in someone who self-harms include the following:

  • OCD
  • Trauma
  • PTSD
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Schizophrenia
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My daughter continued to engage in self-harming behaviors. I felt lost. Then we got treatment at Cedar Crest, where they were able to give her healthier alternatives and get to the root cause of her problems.

– Parent of Anonymous Patient
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