Adult Self-Harm Signs & Symptoms

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Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Sadly, many men and women who are unable to cope with inner turmoil resort to self-harm as a means of coping with stressors. Self-harm, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, is often a dangerous effect of possessing an untreated mental health condition. These behaviors, of which can include cutting, burning, scratching, hitting, biting, or pulling out one’s own hair, carry the potential of causing permanent damage and destruction to an individual’s life. Other means of self-injury that can wreak havoc on a person’s well-being can include ingesting toxic substances, breaking one’s own bones, or putting oneself in harm’s way on purpose.

Men and women who engage in such destructive behaviors may begin doing so after experiencing an abrupt change or changes in life, a trauma, or other impactful circumstance that prevents them from coping with that experience or circumstance in a healthy manner. Losing one’s job, divorce, financial struggles, and other such stressors are examples of what can precede the onset of self-injury. Resorting to self-mutilation in response to a stressor(s) may be especially true for those who are grappling with the symptoms of a mental illness.

What is important to know is that the presence of self-harm does not always infer that a person wishes to end his or her own life. However, should a person’s means of self-injury become more severe, the risk for a grave outcome can increase exponentially. Fortunately, there are options for care available that can help men and women who self-injure. Mental health treatment can teach these individuals healthy coping skills and provide care for any existing mental illness that could be contributing to a man or woman’s self-injurious behaviors.


Self-harm statistics

Accurate statistics pertaining to the prevalence of self-harm are lacking. The reason for this has to do with the fact that men and women conceal these behaviors from those closest to them so as to avoid garnering attention or worry from family members and loved ones. And while it is estimated that one in five women and one in seven men inflict pain upon themselves, further research is required to produce more accurate statistics.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-harm

Mental health professionals widely agree that there is not one isolated cause for self-harm. In lieu of this, the following explanations convey why and how a person can come to self-injure his or her person:

Genetic: While self-injury is not genetic, the mental health conditions that could cause a person to engage in this type of behavior do, in fact, possess a genetic component. Depressive and anxiety disorders, more specifically, include distressing symptoms that could cause an individual to partake in self-mutilation and can be passed on from one’s biological parents.  

Environmental: Stressors in one’s environment can cause a person to engage in self-harming behaviors. Especially for those who are lacking appropriate skills for coping with stress, certain circumstances that are out of a person’s control can lead that individual to self-injure. Losing one’s job, experiencing the demise of a relationship, coming into financial difficulties, or being victimized can all cause a person to succumb to self-mutilation when the ability to manage such turmoil becomes too overwhelming.

Risk Factors:

  • Having ineffective coping skills
  • Having unstable mood or emotions
  • Being confused about one’s sexuality
  • Losing a loved one or friend to death
  • Having an inadequate support system
  • Family history of mental health conditions
  • Having a pre-existing mental illness or illnesses
  • Experiencing trauma or having a history of trauma exposure
  • Lack of impulse control

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm

Adults who engage in self-harming behaviors often go to great lengths to hide their self-destructive behaviors. Because of this, it may not always be apparent to close loved ones or friends that a person is self-injuring. However, should these behaviors escalate to a degree in which ongoing injuries cannot be better explained by a reasonable cause, or if said injuries become life-threatening, those closest to the person self-harming may be able to notice that a loved one is partaking in self-mutilation. Considering the danger associated with self-harm, if you or someone you know is engaging in this behavior, it is necessary to note the presence of any of the following signs and symptoms and seek professional help as soon as possible:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Excusing injuries as accidents
  • Declined interest in things once enjoyed
  • Social isolation
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when it is warm outside in order to conceal injuries

Physical symptoms:

  • Burns
  • Scratches
  • Unexplainable broken bones
  • Bald spots
  • Bruises
  • Scrapes
  • Cuts

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor impulse control
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Intrusive thoughts about self-harming
  • Detached feeling from surroundings
  • Lack of focus

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feeling helpless
  • Experiencing hopeless feelings about the future
  • Increased guilt
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling defeated by even small undertakings
  • Anxious feelings when one is not able to self-injure


Effects of self-harm

The cost to a person’s physical health are great when self-injury is a factor in an individual’s life. With the possibility of leading to irreversible damage, the following are known to occur when a man or woman continues to self-injure:

  • Vital organ damage
  • Organ failure
  • Accidental death
  • Permanent damage to tissues or scarring
  • Nerve damage
  • Hemorrhage
  • Anemia
  • Infection
  • Bones that do not heal properly

Aside from the potential physical health risks associated with self-mutilation, there are other areas of an individual’s life that can be affected negatively by ongoing self-harm. Below are a few examples of such effects:

  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Worsening mental health condition symptoms
  • Intrusive thoughts about self-harm
  • Increased risk of abusing drugs and/or alcohol
  • Increased conflict among, or demise of, relationships with family members or other close loved ones

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-harm and co-occurring disorders

When an adult is inflicting pain onto him or herself, it is likely that he or she is battling a mental health condition or conditions. The listed disorders are those that are frequently diagnosed in men and women who self-injure:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance use disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

2 years ago, I always wanted to self-harm. After attending therapy at Harbor Oaks, my counselor was the best and was the most encouraging person. I am now self-harm free for almost a year!

– Former Patient
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