Self-Injury Causes, Signs & Symptoms

Often times the signs of self-injury can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of self-injury.

Understanding Self-Injury

Learn about self-injury

Self-harm, also known as “self-mutilation,” “self-abuse,” “self-injury,” or simply “cutting,” is the practice of harming the body with the intent of expressing emotional pain and coping with problems. Generally speaking, individuals who self-injure are not doing so with the intention of suicide. If someone dies from self-harm, it’s typically by accident.

Most people who self-injure begin to do so in their late teens or during early adulthood, depending upon the purpose self-injury is serving. Some people engage in self-mutilation to decrease levels of anxiety, to gain attention, as a way to cope with negative emotions, to soothe themselves, or as a way of remaining in the moment if a person has dissociative tendencies.


Self-injury statistics

It’s estimated that non-suicidal self-abuse occurs in about 1%-4% of the adult population; although the prevalence of chronic self-harm is estimated to occur in approximately 1% of the adult population.

Among adolescents, the rates of self-injury are especially high at about 15% of adolescents reporting self-injurious behaviors. College students comprise the highest number of reported cases of self-injury at between 17%-35%. Adults in the 20-29 year old age bracket have the highest hospitalization rates for self-injury.

Rates of self-abuse are consistent among sexes, although the manners in which they engage in self-mutilation varies. Men are more apt to hit themselves, while women are more likely to cut themselves. Both sexes report equal amounts of burning themselves.

These rates may be somewhat skewed as self-injury often results in intense shame, which means that most who practice self-injury as a function of coping and survival do not report doing so.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for self-injury

While no one cause has yet been identified as the reason that some self-injure, there are a number of factors that may contribute to the development of this behavior. These include:

  • Avoidance/Distraction – many people in intense emotional pain may use self-harm as a means to avoid or distract themselves from feeling the negative emotions
  • Cause sensations – individuals who feel emotionally numb often report that even feeling pain is better than feeling nothing
  • Control – people who self-injure often report that they feel their life is out of control and there’s nothing they can do about it. This feeling of futility cases them to seek out other things they can control
  • Compensation –children who grow up in emotionally abusive environments in which they are not allowed to fight back, may use self-mutilation as a means to make the abuse stop by engaging in self-abuse in front of their abuser
  • Coping mechanisms – a number of people use self-injury as a means to cope with situations (death of a loved one, divorce, history of trauma) in which their normal coping strategies are overwhelmed
  • Emotional Expression – some people do not grow up to learn to properly identify and express their emotions, which is something we all need for emotional well-being. For some, self-harm may be used as a way of expressing negative emotions or mood states
  • Punishment – certain individuals grow up being told there is something wrong with them may come to internalize and believe this about themselves. These incorrect perceptions may cause some to punish themselves for their perception of their own worthlessness.

While the causes for self-injurious behavior may remain baffling for some, it’s vital to remember that the behavior is fulfilling an important function for the individual. Rather than judge, we must help provide alternate coping mechanisms, emotional regulation skills, and ways of managing stress.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-injury

There are many signs and symptoms that an individual is self-harming. These include:


  • Relief from a highly distressing mood
  • To end a problematic interpersonal situation
  • To feel a positive mood state, like peacefulness
  • Interpersonal conflicts, negative emotions, guilt, and the belief that the individual is a bad person precedes the self-harm
  • Depressed mood
  • Isolation
  • Irritability


  • Employing chronic self-injurious behaviors many times that cause bruising, bleeding or pain
  • Burning or scalding oneself
  • Hitting yourself
  • Purposefully swallowing poison or other inappropriate objects
  • Sticking objects into the skin
  • Behavior causes much distress to the individual
  • Behavior alters the ability of the individual to function normally in important areas of their life
  • Carrying sharp objects in the individual’s belongings
  • Wearing long sleeves in warm weather
  • Spending much time alone


  • Self-injury performed in areas in which minor but painful injuries can occur
  • Unexplained wounds or scars, usually on the wrists, thighs or chest
  • Blood stains on towels, tissues or bedding
  • Unexplainable, frequent self-report of accidents


  • Expectation that the self-injury will only cause mild to moderate harm physically
  • Frequent thoughts of self-harm even if there is no intent to execute at that time
  • Feeling that self-harm is punishment
  • Feeling in control of some aspect of an individual’s life
  • Relief from the tension and emotional pain


Effects of self-injury

Effects of self-injurious behavior can be short-term or long-term effects that can cause lasting damage. Effects of self-injury include:

  • Permanent scars
  • Depression regarding the inability to stop self-injuring despite the consequences
  • Feeling worthless, helpless, or hopeless that an individual can stop the behaviors
  • Broken bones
  • The stress of providing many reasons for injuries
  • Social isolation
  • Stress of having to hide the self-abuse from others
  • Infected wounds
  • Substance use and abuse to self-medicate
  • Failure to address reasons behind the self-injury that may worsen over time
  • Long-standing problems cause decreased enjoyment from other areas of life
  • Anxiety that someone will discover the self-mutilation
  • Death

If your or a loved one suffering with self-injury, call one of our Admissions counselors for a free, confidential assessment of treatment options.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Self-injury and co-occurring disorders

Self-harm is a very serious condition that often occurs with other disorders. The following are the disorders that are associated with more dangerous and higher rates of self-injurious behaviors:

  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Trauma
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Dissociation and dissociative disorders
  • Mental retardation
  • Autism spectrum disorders