Signs of Self-harm

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Signs of self-harm

Studies have found that self-harm is a very common strategy to cope with daily pressure and negative emotions. While the reasons for why individuals self-harm can vary significantly, its signs remain fairly consistent.

From scratching to biting and even social isolation, there are a number of signs that are consistent with self-harm and can be symptoms of more serious mental health issues.  Most mental health professionals at treatment facilities like URP Behavioral Health look for these signs when providing a diagnosis.

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1. Cuts, bruises, scratches, or burn marks

Individuals struggling with self-harm could cut themselves with sharp objects and could burn themselves with cigarettes or household cleaning products. A literature review of different individuals’ experiences showed that self-harm helps ease serious feelings of shame and guilt. Some even reported that it was a way of inflicting self-punishment.

2. Keeping sharp objects on hand

Some people will likely keep some type of sharp object on their person or in their surroundings. Experts have determined that objects like box cutters, knives, safety pins, or even pencil sharpeners can be used to inflict self-harm. It is also worth mentioning that individuals struggling with self-harm will also use other objects to inflict self-harm, such as rope, household cleaning products, as well as over-the-counter medication.

3. Covering the arms or legs even in hot weather

A comprehensive study on self-harm showed that over 80% of participants would hide their scars. They would either harm themselves on parts of the body that are easy to cover or will cover those wounds with longer sleeves or pants. Participants in the same study said that reactions of horror, shock, or anger from friends and family were major reasons for hiding self-harm.

4. Emotional outbursts and impulsive behavior

Emotional outbursts and self-harm are likely to co-occur amongst individuals who are struggling with either. While self-harm could be in a physical form, it could also be emotional through social isolation or self-loathing. Experts also suggest that the emotional outburst and the ensuing self-harm could be the result of a lack of emotional regulation or an inability to process emotions.

5. Withdrawing from relationships or usual activities

Individuals who self-harm often do so to help control their sudden rise in emotions. Despite them often knowing that self-harm is not the best way to process their emotions, they are more than likely to continue. Furthermore, the fear of friends and family being shocked or horrified keeps them isolated from their usual activities.

6. Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

Other than individuals engaging in self-harm to feel something, others might engage as a form of self-loathing or self-punishment. This aspect of their self-harm can be fueled by a feeling of worthlessness or even hopelessness towards their inability to stop hurting themselves. Those feelings can also be the result of their social isolation.

7. Participating in risky behavior

Studies suggest that engaging in risky behavior or self-harm is an observable symptom of underlying mental health issues or trouble regulating emotions. Risk-taking behaviors can include excessive eating, excessive alcohol use, tobacco use, or even reckless driving.

8. Misuse of drugs or alcohol

Individuals with a tendency to self-harm are very likely to use drugs or alcohol to help cope with their self-harm tendencies. In some cases, individuals are likely to drink to numb the pain before they injure themselves. However, the most likely use of drugs and alcohol is among adults who would self-harm in the past.

9. Being secretive

Feelings of shame and guilt are also prevalent in individuals who self-harm, which causes them to avoid most social situations. They might cut off friends entirely, take more days off from work, or even miss classes. Being secretive can also be a sign of more serious mental health issues.

10. Avoiding situations where one has to expose arms or legs

Individuals who struggle with self-harm might still meet with friends and be socially available. However, despite not isolating themselves from social situations, they will avoid situations where they might have to expose their arms or legs.

11.Offering strange or vague excuses for injuries

Individuals who self-harm will do so to help ease their emotional distress or to cope with the feeling of nothingness. So, if other people tend to see that they have these scars, they are more than likely to make excuses. Often, the purpose of the excuses is not to offer an explanation but simply to deflect the issue.

12. Carving words or symbols into the skin

Carving words into the skin is an alternative to simply cutting, as individuals could write insults or cries for help. People struggling with self-harm will often do this to externalize their self-loathing and are more likely to do it on parts of the body that are much easier to hide.

13. Biting oneself

Experts believe that biting, punching, and cutting are the most prominent forms of self-harm. Biting becomes especially prevalent in the absence of sharp objects that individuals can use to cut themselves. Biting leaves more visible signs on the body and can be much more difficult to hide.

14. Pulling out hair

Hair pulling, or trichotillomania is another common type of self-harm that is especially common in adolescent girls. Young girls, especially ones with longer hair, will often pull their hair to self-harm since it is also less noticeable at first glance.

15. Picking at and deliberately interfering with healing wounds

Scab picking can be another way to cause self-harm, and it is not necessary for the wounds to be self-inflicted. Picking at healing burns or cuts can also become addictive and can lead to the wound permanently scarring. This is especially common in injuries on the hands and feet.

16. Piercing the skin with sharp objects

When individuals struggle to find sharp objects to injure themselves with, they will instead use needles, safety pins, paper clips, and other pointed objects. Using these objects to pierce the skin is different from tattoos or piercings, as individuals simply want to feel the sting.


The methods that people use to self-harm and its signs are not what people should focus on when looking to stop this behavior. Instead, finding the reasons as to why people self-harm can significantly improve their ability to heal. Treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and dialect behavioral therapy can help individuals manage their emotions, and it can help them stop the habit of self-harm.

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