What are the signs of self-abuse?

We all find different ways to cope with feelings that can often be overwhelming. This can often take the form of destructive behaviors known as self-abuse (also known as self-harm).

What is self-abuse?

Self-abuse is the act of intentionally harming yourself. Turning invisible thoughts into visible actions and emotional pain into physical pain. Examples include:

  • Excessive substance abuse
  • Cutting or burning skin
  • Hair pulling
  • Deliberate starvation or binge eating
  • Poisoning and overdosing in non-lethal doses
  • Picking fights and provoking violent confrontations

Why do people self-abuse?

The self-abuse cycle

Often the feelings and emotions that overwhelm us will build up, and we end up bottling this inside. These could come from reliving past traumatic experiences or from our current circumstances. For example:

  • Money worries
  • A breakup
  • Losing your job
  • Bereavement
  • Emotional or physical abuse by others
  • Health problems

Sometimes we are trying to escape painful memories, vent our anger or need a stimulus from feelings of numbness and emptiness. Others feel the act of self-abuse is calming and comforting Self-abusive behaviors are a way to take back control of some of these feelings, relieve this pressure and give temporary relief from emotional suffering. The key word here is temporary as the self-abuse does not resolve the underlying root causes of depression, anger or anxiety.

A common misconception is that self-abuse is a way of seeking attention. In fact, most people who self-abuse can feel guilt or shame from acting out in this way and may keep these behaviors hidden from family and friends. They find it difficult to find the courage to talk about their unhappiness to friends and family. As such, a vicious cycle can start that many find difficult to come out of.

Triggers for self-abuse

Particular thoughts, people or situations can trigger thoughts of self-abuse. Physical symptoms might precede this, including an increased heart rate or a loss of physical sensation.

What to look out for

If you’re concerned about someone close to you, these may be possible signs of self-abusive behavior

  • Unexplained cuts, bruises or marks
  • Covered up clothing even in hot weather
  • Excessive drug and alcohol use
  • Reclusiveness and avoiding social events
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • An increase in risk-taking behavior
  • Lethargy, lack of motivation and low mood
  • A sense of hopelessness and tearfulness

Records show that women are more likely to self-abuse than men. However, many men do not seek out help, and so the number of men who do not reach out for help is perhaps much more significant than we think. The media portrayal is also often of teenagers and a subculture of ‘goths’ who self-abuse but self-abuse can happen from a much younger and much older age.

It can be very distressing to find out someone close to you is self-abusing. It’s important not to panic as it will influence how likely they are to open up in future. Avoid trying to force an immediate change in their behavior and try to understand the reasons behind their actions. Let them know that you are there for them and will help them when they feel ready.

Treatment for self-abuse

Self-abuse is treatable, and there are ways to minimize the triggers and confront your emotions and feelings in less destructive ways. Sometimes when the urge is difficult to control you can try some of these methods to help you:

Distraction techniques

  • Hit a pillow or punching bag to take out anger and frustration
  • Stretch an elastic band against your wrist for short sharp sensations
  • Scribble on a large piece of paper
  • Rip up papers or magazines
  • Write down your thoughts in a journal or record them for later reference
  • Write a poem or song and channel your feelings into creative energy
  • Watch a film you enjoy or listen to music
  • Meditate and do short breathing exercises
  • Eat something with a strong taste (chilli, mints, sour fruit)
  • Take a cold shower or hold ice cubes to your skin


Although it can be tough to reflect on these actions but keeping a thought diary will help you identify triggers and help you to stop an episode in its tracks. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What was the reason for hurting yourself the first time?
  • How does it make you feel when you self-abuse? Both, immediately afterward and the day afterward?
  • What situations are you likely to hurt yourself and are there any you can avoid?
  • How would you feel if you stopped self-abusing?

Long-term treatment

There is a range of treatment options available. Your GP will be able to assess you and let you know about treatment available in your local area. Often self-abuse is one of many symptoms of other deeper lying issues. For example, your doctor may be able to prescribe you medication to help you sleep or reduce anxiety.

There is a range of therapy options also available, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Psychodynamic Therapy.

Support groups are also an invaluable tool for many people. A safe place where you can discuss your feelings with others who have gone through similar experiences. If there is no face to face support groups in your area, or you don’t feel comfortable attending those meetings, there are also online support groups and forums that can be accessed.

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