Self-Harm Signs, Symptoms and Effects


Understanding the signs, symptoms, and effects of self-harm is an important step toward getting help for yourself or your loved one. Haverhill Pavilion Behavioral Health Hospital in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is a source of accurate information, reliable guidance, and comprehensive solutions for adults and older adults who have been struggling with self-harm.

Understanding Self-Harm

Learn about self-harm

Self-harm is a clinical term that describes a variety of behaviors, all of which involve the intentional infliction of pain or damage upon one’s own body. Self-harm is also sometimes referred to as self-injury or self-mutilation.

Common types of self-harm include the following:

  • Pinching, cutting, or burning your skin
  • Pulling out your hair
  • Punching yourself or hitting your head against a wall or other hard object
  • Picking at wounds or scabs to prevent them from healing

Self-harm is not a form of mental illness, though it can be a symptom of certain disorders. It is also important to understand that self-harm is not a suicidal behavior. Individuals who engage in self-harm are not doing so in an attempt to end their own lives. That said, self-harming behaviors can be unintentionally fatal, and people who harm themselves may be at increased risk for suicidal thoughts.

People engage in self-harm for numerous reasons. As noted in the previous paragraph, some are compelled to hurt themselves due to a psychiatric condition. Others may do so in a misguided attempt to establish a sense of control in what, to them, feels like an out-of-control existence. Still others may do so as a form of self-punishment, or as a way to try to give physical presence to emotional pain.

Regardless of what has prompted this activity, people who engage in self-harm need professional care. With the right type and level of help, they can address the underlying concerns that pushed them into patterns of self-harm and regain control of their thoughts and actions.

Signs & Symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of self-harm

The signs and symptoms of self-harm can vary considerably from person to person depending upon factors such as the individual’s age and personality, the type of self-harm they’ve been engaging in, and whether the self-harm is a symptom of an underlying disorder.

In general, though, the following are among the more common signs and symptoms of self-harm:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family members
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather (this can be an attempt to hide scars, cuts, or other physical signs of self-harm)
  • Lying, secrecy, or other deceptiveness regarding whereabouts, activities, or injuries
  • Engaging in violent, reckless, or otherwise dangerous actions
  • Ceasing to participate in activities, hobbies, or pursuits that were previously of great importance

Physical symptoms:

  • Frequent unexplained bruises, burns, or cuts
  • Sores or scabs that never seem to heal
  • Multiple instances of broken bones
  • Impaired motor skills due to injuries
  • Scarring
  • Areas of missing hair
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Sleep problems

Mental symptoms:

  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Persistent sense of shame or guilt
  • Powerful desire to punish yourself
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Mood swings
  • Dissociation (the sensation of disconnecting from your thoughts, emotions, and memories)
  • Feeling that you have no control over your life

Short-Term Effects

Possible short-term effects of self-harm

As with the signs and symptoms of self-harm, the effects of these actions can vary considerably depending upon a host of individual factors. This section addresses some of the more common short-term effects of self-harm.

Please note that describing these effects as short-term is not meant to minimize their danger. The short-term effects listed here are among the outcomes that may occur in the earlier stages of a person’s involvement with self-harm.

With that understanding, the following are possible short-term effects of self-harm:

  • Physical injuries
  • Harm to internal organs
  • Infections
  • Strained relationships with family members and friends
  • Substandard performance in school or at work
  • Frequent absenteeism from school or work
  • Development or worsening of co-occurring disorders
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Diminished attention to diet, exercise, and other forms of self-care
  • Substance abuse
  • Thoughts of suicide

Again, it cannot be overemphasized that any effect of self-harm can be extremely dangerous. The short-term effects of self-harm that are listed here can have a profound negative impact. If you or someone you care about has experienced any short-term effects of self-harm, seek professional help today.

Long-Term Effects

Potential long-term effects of self-harm

Continuing to engage in self-harm exposes you to a wide range of long-term effects. As with the short-term effects in the previous section, the long-term effects of self-harm can be devastating.

The following are among the many potential long-term effects of self-harm:

  • Ruined relationships with family and friends
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Addiction
  • Serious medical or psychological damage
  • Acute symptoms of co-occurring disorders
  • Overwhelming sense of hopelessness, helplessness, and self-hatred
  • Accidental death
  • Suicide

Every time you attempt to injure yourself, you put your continued well-being in jeopardy. As indicated by this list of potential long-term effects, self-harm can lead to catastrophic outcomes. If you have been engaging in self-harm, or if you suspect that someone you care about may be struggling with the short- or long-term effects of self-harm, get help today.

Without proper professional care, anyone who experiences the signs, symptoms, and effects of self-harm remains in danger. But when you get the help you need, you can regain control of your thoughts and actions and overcome the urge to harm yourself.

Disorders That May Cause Self-Harm

Common disorders among people who have been engaging in self-harm

As discussed at the top of this page, self-harm is not a disorder. Sometimes it is a symptom of a disorder, but in other cases it is not.

The following are among the disorders that can prompt a person to engage in self-harm:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance use disorders

When seeking care for self-harm, it is important to choose a provider who can determine whether the self-harm is a symptom of a disorder. Addressing any disorders that accompany or lead to self-harm can be a vital step on the journey to overcoming this dangerous compulsion.


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