Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior

People often keep self-harming behaviors a secret. They wear clothes to cover their bodies and may be socially withdrawn. However, the urge to self-harm isn’t uncommon and many overcome it with treatment.

Often, self-injury is a sign of additional conditions that need to be addressed. Reach out for help if you are injuring yourself or have thoughts of harming yourself. Talking to a doctor or someone you trust is a big first step and puts you on the path for successful treatment. 

Banner Health is a leader in providing supportive, caring mental health treatment. Our professional staff helps patients in intense emotional or physical pain and their families find relief. Our mental health care team consists of doctors, nurses, clinical care managers and behavioral health technicians. Each patient’s treatment plan is customized to address their specific needs. To get started on your path to recovery, call the Banner Appointment Line at 1 (800) 254-4357 or (602) 254-4357.

If you or a loved one is self-harming or appears in severe emotional distress, call Banner Health at 1 (800) 254-4357 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has behavior health specialists who can help 24 hours a day.

What Is Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior?

Self-harm or self-injury is a non-suicidal, deliberate act of harming your body. Patients may cut, burn or scratch to bring a momentary release to cope with overwhelming feelings. However, after self-harming, patients often feel guilt and shame, and their painful emotions return and even worsen.

While the intent of self-harm is not to cause life-threatening injury, it still carries serious complications, including:

  • Intense negative feelings of shame and guilt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Infections
  • Scarring or disfigurement
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Worsening of underlying mental health issues
  • Serious, possibly fatal injury

Although self-injury is usually not a suicide attempt, the pattern of damaging the body in times of distress can make suicide more likely.

Getting appropriate treatment can help you or your loved one learn healthier ways to cope. Recovery is possible.

Types of Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior

Patients who self-harm usually do so in private and precise ways. It’s often done on the arms, legs and torso. Sometimes, self-harm is only inflicted a few times, but it can turn into a long-term condition.

Examples of self-injury include:

  • Cutting with a sharp object
  • Scratching
  • Burning with matches, cigarettes or heated objects
  • Carving words or symbols on the skin
  • Hitting, slapping or punching oneself
  • Head banging or hitting a wall
  • Puncturing or piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Inserting objects under the skin
  • Pulling out hair
  • Picking at existing wounds

What Causes Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior?

While each patient’s reason for self-injury is different, in general it’s to:

  • Signal depression to others
  • Cope with psychological pain
  • Attempt to feel something when feeling emotionally empty or numb
  • Gain a sense of control
  • Manage emotions of loneliness, panic, anger and/or confusion
  • Punish for perceived faults
  • Process negative feelings
  • Distract from negative feelings
  • Express embarrassing emotions

What Are Risk Factors for Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior?

Factors that may increase the risk of self-injury include:

  • Age: Teenagers and young adults are most likely to self-injure as they begin to deal with peer pressure, loneliness and conflict.
  • Friends: Patients with friends who self-injure are more likely to do it themselves.
  • Trauma: If a patient was neglected, abused or experienced other traumatic events, they may be at higher risk of self-harm.
  • Identity: Patients, especially youths, who are questioning their personal identity or sexuality may turn to self-injury to cope.
  • Isolation: Some patients who self-injure are – or feel – socially isolated.
  • Traits: Patients who self-injure are likely to be critical of themselves.
  • Mental illness: Mental disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders are often linked to self-injury behaviors.
  • Alcohol or drug use: Some patients may cause self-injury while using alcohol or drugs.

Can Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior Be Prevented?

Offering or seeking help is the best way to reduce the risk of someone self-injuring.

For patients, learning healthy coping skills, forming social connections and talking about negative influences can help on the road to recovery and reduce the impulse to self-harm.

What Are Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior?

Signs and symptoms of self-harming disorder and behavior include:

  • Always covering up in long sleeves or long pants
  • Behavioral and emotional instability
  • Expressing helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Extreme rubbing or irritation to an area to burn skin
  • Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bites or wounds
  • Impulsivity
  • Issues socially and with interpersonal relationships
  • Excessive accidental injuries 
  • An affinity for playing with sharp objects
  • Scars on the skin in patterns or shapes
  • Unpredictability

How Is Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior Diagnosed?

Diagnosing self-harming behavior is based on a physical and psychological evaluation. 

Your doctor will generally begin with an evaluation for suicidal tendencies and by treating any physical injuries. Next, your doctor may ask questions about your health history, including how you feel when you self-harm, how long you’ve been self-harming and what types of injuries you’ve inflicted. If the doctor suspects underlying mental health conditions or a risk for suicide, additional assessments may be needed to build the most effective treatment plan.

Often, self-harm behaviors are rooted in painful emotions. It can be daunting to address the reasons at the core of self-injury. It can be difficult to break the cycle. Banner Health’s team of experienced doctors, nurses and mental health specialists are dedicated to providing compassionate, confidential care to patients and their families.

How is Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior Treated?

Banner Health’s behavioral health care team works with you and your family to develop a treatment plan customized to your specific needs. Our staff are experienced in treating patients who self-injure. 

Self-harm can become a major part of your life. Treating your self-injury behavior takes time and hard work. And, with the right support, recovery is possible.

In general, self-harming behaviors are treated using:

  • Psychotherapy (talk therapy) to help you address and manage underlying issues and learn skills. Therapy may include individual, group or family sessions.
  • Medications to treat underlying mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Psychiatric hospitalization or day treatment programs if you need a safe environment or more intense treatment.

Support for Self-Harming Disorder and Behavior

If you or a loved one needs help coping, Banner Health offers education and support resources. Learning about self-harm behaviors, triggers and treatment as well as talking to others who've gone through what you're going through can help. Banner Health has counselors, therapists and support groups for patients and parents, family members or friends of people who self-injure.