Understanding Self-Harm Behaviors

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Understanding Self-Harm Behaviours

Research indicates that the term ‘self-harm’ is a broad construct encompassing a range of behaviors meant to injure the body or cause pain. There’s a growing prevalence rate of non-suicidal self-injury, particularly among adolescents, with studies indicating that about 8 percent of young engaged in self-harm behaviors in their lifetime. For a better understanding of self-harm, here’s what you should know about its physical signs, behavioral patterns, and emotional indicators.

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Physical Signs

Physical Signs

People who regularly engage in self-harm behaviors typically display a combination of different physical signs. These are some of the first things that mental health specialists look for, specifically in treatment settings like URP Behavioral Health.

Unexplained cuts, bruises, or burns

Because the most common form of self-harm is physical self-injury, signs such as unexplained cuts, bruises, or burns are more prominent. These are usually apparent in certain parts of the body, such as the wrists, arms, thighs, or chest.

Wearing Long Sleeves Or Long-Legged Pants

It’s quite common for people struggling with self-harm to hide their scars and bruises. Usually, this includes wearing long-sleeved shirts and/or long-legged trousers, depending on where they have self-harmed.


This habit may persist during warmer months as well when people generally feel more comfortable wearing short-sleeved shirts.

Frequent Isolation From Others

When you frequently engage in self-harm behavior, you may grow a habit of isolating yourself to hide injuries. Or, if your friends and family show concern about your well-being, you may prefer to isolate yourself to self-harm without being interrupted.


Keep in mind that NSSI is often associated with psychiatric conditions such as mood disorders. Consequently, you may feel the need to shut yourself away from others as a symptom of a disorder.

Behavioral Patterns

Behavioral Patterns

Besides the physical signs that someone is engaging in self-harm behavior, you may observe certain behavioral patterns as well. For people who struggle to cope with overwhelming emotions and painful memories, self-harm is a way to gain control or find relief. Research indicates that self-harm behavior can be conceptualized as addictive. This is because people who engage in the behavior once and find relief are more likely to repeat it. As a result, you may experience the need to self-harm each time you encounter an overly stressful situation. A constant need can lead to distinct behavioral patterns, such as

Keeping sharp objects like razors or knives

Because cutting is a common self-harm method, you may use sharp objects such as a razor blade or a knife. When you self-harm regularly, you may have these items close by, even when there’s no clear need for them.

Spending long periods in a locked room

For people who want to self-harm, bathrooms and bedrooms offer privacy to engage in the behavior without being interrupted. And because it can take some time for cuts and burns to stop bleeding, it’s common for people to spend considerably long periods of time when compared to what’s considered normal.

Increased isolation from friends and family

Research indicates a high correlation between self-harm behaviors and mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder. When you struggle with a condition like BPD, you may go through periods of self-imposed isolation as a way to cope with difficult feelings.

Frequent need for bandages

Persistent self-harm can prevent previous wounds from healing, which increases the risk of infections. It can also increase the frequency with which you change bandages. If you suspect that a loved one is engaging in self-harm behavior, you may notice a recurring need to bandage their arms, hands, or legs.

Emotional Indicators

Emotional Indicators

Besides exhibiting certain behavioral patterns, people who engage in self-harm also display some emotional indicators. These give insight into how they’re feeling and can include examples such as:

Expressions of feeling hopeless

Studies indicate that feelings of hopelessness are an effective predictor of self-harm behavior. This could be because feelings of hopelessness and/or worthlessness are common symptoms in psychiatric conditions such as major depression, which carries a high risk of self-harm.

Difficulty in regulating emotions

There’s evidence that people who struggle with conditions such as PTSD and BPD have a tendency to self-harm. When you struggle with these conditions, you experience difficulty in regulating and controlling your emotions during stressful situations. In these times, self-harm is a way to express how you feel by converting your emotional distress into physical pain.

Negative self-talk or self-criticism

Research shows that having low self-esteem can be a risk factor for self-harm in adults and adolescents. This trait can manifest in the form of self-criticism and negative self-talk.

Emotional instability or impulsivity

According to the findings of one study, mood-based impulsivity is linked to a greater risk of initiating self-harm. Moreover, emotional instability is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder, which is commonly linked to self-harm.

Interpersonal Signs

Some signs of self-harm are more prominent in your interactions with other people; these are interpersonal signs.

Avoiding certain social situations

You may feel the need to avoid certain social gatherings, such as at a pool or at the beach, out of fear that others will see your scars or ask about them.

Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships


When you struggle with self-harm, you have a hard time regulating your emotions. This makes it difficult to form relationships with other people. Even when you do, sudden changes in mood or the inability to cope with overwhelming feelings make it harder to maintain relationships.

Over time, you may notice that you’re withdrawing from friends, family, and usual activities that you previously enjoyed. Nevertheless, early therapeutic interventions involving evidence-based treatments can help you start your journey to recovery.

A mental health expert can assist you in developing appropriate coping strategies. As you build effective coping skills, you’ll be less likely to engage in self-harm behaviors. If you’re concerned that a loved one is self-harming, look for these signs.

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