Self-Harm: All You Need to Know About Its Impact, Causes, and Risks

Self-Harm: All You Need to Know About Its Impact, Causes, and Risks

Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

  Written by: Sabrina Sourjah
Date Updated: 4/22/2021
Reviewed by: Patrick D. Randolph, Ph.D.

Self-harm can come in various forms.

Have you ever felt extreme emotional pain that you have considered doing anything to stop the pain? Even if that thing hurt you in the long term.

When psychological pain becomes unbearable, one can turn to self-harm. Replacing your emotional pain with physical pain can take your mind away from the emotional chaos.

In extreme cases, prolonged harm can lead to suicide ideation and attempts when one feels that self-harm has become ineffective over time. Those attempting suicide feel hopeless and don’t see a way out of their misery. They also perceive themselves to be a burden to family and friends.

What Is Self-Harm?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines self-harm as purposefully hurting yourself. One of the most common ways of harming yourself is to cut your body, especially your hands, with sharp objects.

Other ways individuals self-harm include burning skin, pulling hair, and picking at wounds. This behavior frequently occurs in teenagers and young adults.

Why Do People Self-Harm?

Emotional distress can drive people to harm themselves. Some of these emotions include anger, frustration, and sadness.

Self-harm is a call for a better coping mechanism as the individual hasn’t found a healthy and effective way to cope with their extreme emotions.

Types of Self-Harm

There are many ways that one can self-harm.

  • Cutting or burning skin
  • Misusing alcohol and drugs
  • Excessive exercise
  • Punching or hitting oneself
  • Starving or binge eating
  • Poisoning oneself with medications

Risk Factors for Self-Harm and Suicide

Risk for self-harm and suicide increases with the existence of the following factors:

  • Previous self-harm or suicide attempts
  • History of psychiatric treatment
  • Alcohol or drug dependence
  • Mental disorders
  • Social isolation
  • Family history of suicide
  • Chronic disease or disability
  • Past trauma and painful memories

Impact of Self-Harm

1. Overall Health

Self-harm can have adverse effects on one’s body in various ways. Excessive alcohol usage can be linked to diseases like stroke, high blood pressure, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and pancreatitis. According to the National Cancer Institute, heavy alcohol consumption is also linked to head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer.

Unsafe drug usage is connected to cancers, serious dental issues, and damages to the nervous system. Excessive exercising can overwhelm your body, especially when time is not taken in between to recuperate. Binge eating can cause obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

2. Surgery Outcomes

Picking out unhealed wounds post-surgery can cause the recovery period to lengthen indefinitely. Burned or cut skin can also cause complications during surgeries with respect to injections and finding veins for saline infusions.

The immense emotional pain of someone who is self-harming can result in weakened immunity and slower healing due to the mind-body connection that’s an integral part of holistic treatment methods.

3. Mental Health

Self-harm is not a mental illness. It can, however, be a sign of underlying mental disorders like borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

When one engages in self-harming acts, experts say that this triggers shame and guilt. This can lead to more negative feelings that make them self-harm, resulting in a vicious cycle.

4. Longevity

Self-injuries like overdosing and punching can result in low mortality if the acts cause irreversible impact to one’s body. Suicide attempts can also lower mortality in the event serious consequences are witnessed.

In addition to direct impacts on longevity, indirect effects through risky alcohol usage and drug usage can also lower the lifespan of individuals.

5. Life Satisfaction

Studies on Deliberate Self-Harm (DSH) in adolescents show a clear connection between self-harm and self-reported dissatisfaction with life. This is not surprising because individuals turn to self-harm as a way to minimize pain.


If you or someone you know is engaging in self-harming behaviors, know that it’s a call for help and better ways of coping with emotional distress. You can get the necessary support by working with a mental health professional.