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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » All about Self-Destructive Behaviours

All about Self-Destructive Behaviours

Last updated on 2nd October 2023

In our complex human experience, we come across various behaviours that challenge our inherent instinct for self-preservation. One such complex phenomenon is self-destructive behaviour—a perplexing concept that demands our attention and understanding.

What is self-destructive behaviour?

Self-destructive behaviour involves purposeful actions or behaviour patterns that inflict harm upon oneself, leading to physical, emotional or psychological consequences. It encompasses a variety of behaviours individuals adopt as a way to manage distress, emotional pain or difficult situations. There are many different forms of self-destructive behaviour, including self-harm and substance abuse. They can also come about as detrimental thinking patterns like negative self-talk or self-sabotage.

Self-destructive behaviours are frequently employed as ineffective coping mechanisms, offering momentary respite or diversion from underlying emotional turmoil or stress. However, over time, they can perpetuate a cycle of harm and exacerbate existing problems, leading to further distress and negative consequences.

Commonly, self-destructive behaviour is indicative of other issues like trauma, anxiety, depression, personality disorders or mental health problems. Addressing these underlying factors and finding healthier coping strategies is crucial for individuals struggling with self-destructive behaviours to achieve lasting well-being and recovery.

Some common examples include:

  • Self-harm: This involves intentionally causing physical injury to oneself as a way to cope with emotional pain or gain a sense of control. Typically, this involves cutting the skin (wrists, legs, arms) or headbanging. According to the NHS, around 6.4% of the English population self-harm at some point in their lives.
  • Substance abuse: This can appear as excessive alcohol consumption, drug taking or use of solvents, for example.
  • Reckless behaviour: Acting without regard for personal safety or the well-being of oneself and others, such as participating in dangerous activities, driving recklessly or engaging in unprotected sexual encounters.
  • Eating disorders: Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are all forms of self-destructive behaviours. With these conditions, individuals engage in eating patterns that impact their health and well-being negatively. According to the Priory Group, 1.6 million UK nationals are affected by an eating disorder.
  • Excessive risk-taking: Engaging in activities with high risks and potential negative consequences, such as gambling, extreme sports or dangerous thrill-seeking behaviour.
Eating Disorder

Signs of self-destructive behaviour

While the manifestations of self-destructive behaviour can vary, there are common indicators and red flags to be mindful of when assessing someone’s well-being.

Physical signs:

  • Unexplained injuries, cuts or bruises, particularly in patterns or recurring nature.
  • Noticeable changes in weight, such as significant weight loss or gain, without apparent reason or healthy lifestyle adjustments.
  • Frequent physical ailments, such as headaches, stomach aches or fatigue, which may be psychosomatic in nature.

Emotional and psychological signs:

  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or despair.
  • Drastic changes in mood, ranging from extreme highs to prolonged periods of sadness or irritability.
  • Social withdrawal or isolation, avoiding social interactions and activities once enjoyed.
  • Expressions of self-hatred, self-blame or an excessively negative self-perception.

Behavioural signs:

  • Engaging in self-harm behaviours, such as cutting, burning or scratching oneself.
  • Increased substance abuse or dependence on drugs, alcohol or other addictive substances.
  • Repeated engagement in risky activities without concern for personal safety or the consequences.
  • Neglecting personal hygiene, self-care or overall well-being.

Impact on relationships and daily functioning:

  • Strained or deteriorating relationships with family, friends or colleagues due to erratic or self-destructive behaviour.
  • Decline in academic or work performance, inability to concentrate or lack of motivation.
  • Disruption of regular routines and responsibilities, neglecting important obligations or commitments.
  • Social withdrawal, isolating oneself from social support networks or avoiding opportunities for personal growth.

Knowing the potential signs of self-destructive behaviour means it’s easier to identify someone who might need support or intervention.

What causes self-destructive behaviour?

There are many different reasons why self-destructive behaviour occurs and they can be multifaceted and complex. Here are some of the known causes:

Triggers and underlying factors:

  • Mental health conditions: When someone suffers from a mental health condition like anxiety and depression or has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or borderline personality disorder, for example, they are much more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours. These conditions can intensify feelings of distress and contribute to self-destructive coping mechanisms.
  • Unresolved trauma: Past experiences of trauma, abuse or neglect can significantly impact an individual’s emotional well-being and increase the likelihood of self-destructive behaviour as a maladaptive coping mechanism.
  • Poor self-image and low self-esteem: When a person suffers from poor self-image or low self-esteem, they might turn to self-destructive behaviours as a coping mechanism.
  • Difficulty regulating emotions: Some individuals struggle with regulating their emotions effectively, leading to impulsive and self-destructive behaviours as a means of temporary relief or emotional release.
  • Relationship issues: Turbulent or abusive relationships can contribute to self-destructive behaviour, as individuals may internalise negative beliefs about themselves or seek destructive outlets to cope with the emotional turmoil.

Influence of past experiences, upbringing and environment:

  • Childhood upbringing: Early experiences, including parental neglect, abuse or inconsistent caregiving, can shape an individual’s coping strategies and emotional well-being, potentially contributing to self-destructive behaviour later in life.
  • Peer influence: Social circles and peer pressure can play a role in the development and reinforcement of self-destructive behaviour, as individuals may engage in harmful actions to fit in or seek acceptance.
  • Cultural and societal factors: Societal expectations, cultural norms and the portrayal of self-destructive behaviour in media can influence individuals and contribute to their engagement in such behaviours.

Addressing the underlying causes through therapy, support networks and intervention can help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and work towards healing and recovery.

Peer Pressure

How is self-destructive behaviour diagnosed?

For people to get the right support, an accurate diagnosis is needed. There are numerous methods for assessing and evaluating behaviours. These include clinical interviews, psychological assessments, observations and reports.

Clinical interviews

Mental health professionals conduct comprehensive interviews to gather information about an individual’s behaviours, thoughts, emotions and personal history. These interviews help identify patterns of self-destructive behaviour and potential underlying factors.

Psychological assessments

Psychological tests or questionnaires can be used to assess how severe an individual’s self-destructive behaviours are. They can also be used to explore any other associated psychological conditions or symptoms.

Observations and reports

Professionals involved in diagnosis often rely on reports and observations given by family members, friends or other people involved in the person’s life. This helps to gain an insight into the behaviours, their frequency and impact.

Co-occurring disorders and comprehensive assessment

When an individual demonstrates self-destructive behaviour, it’s not uncommon for there to be a coexisting disorder or condition. For this reason, it’s important to carry out a comprehensive assessment to identify any other issues as these can influence the treatment choices and recovery.

Essentially, making a diagnosis requires a holistic approach that takes into account the individual’s behaviours, psychological well-being and experiences. With this approach to diagnosis, the individual is more likely to receive appropriate treatment.

How is self-destructive behaviour treated?

Effectively addressing self-destructive behaviour requires a comprehensive and personalised treatment approach that considers the unique needs and circumstances of each individual. Treatment options typically involve a combination of therapeutic interventions, medication management and support systems to facilitate healing, promote self-awareness and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Treatment approaches

The treatment received for self-destructive behaviours will depend on the causes and whether or not there are coexisting medical conditions.

Here are some options:

  • Therapy: There are different types of psychotherapy available to support individuals with self-destructive behaviours. These include cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and psychodynamic therapy. Psychotherapy can be beneficial in helping people to understand the causes of their behaviour and to help them challenge negative thought patterns. With this, they can also learn healthier coping strategies.
  • Medication: Sometimes, a patient will be prescribed medication. This might be for an underlying health condition like anxiety, depression or impulse control disorders. Psychiatric evaluation and ongoing medication management by a qualified professional are essential.
  • Support groups: Participating in support groups or group therapy sessions with individuals who have similar experiences can provide a sense of belonging, validation and a platform for sharing coping strategies and recovery journeys.

Importance of individualised treatment plans

With the understanding that this behaviour is complex and multifaceted, it’s important for treatment to be tailored to a person’s individual needs. Person-centred care allows for a more targeted approach, addressing underlying mental health issues, exploring personal triggers and focusing on building adaptive coping mechanisms.

Addressing underlying mental health issues

Effective treatment of self-destructive behaviour necessitates addressing any underlying mental health conditions. Depending on the specific condition, there may be targeted interventions to help alleviate symptoms, which, in turn, would alleviate the self-destructive behaviours.

Building healthier coping mechanisms

A crucial aspect of treatment involves equipping individuals with alternative, healthier coping strategies to replace self-destructive behaviours. With a collaborative approach, an individual can work with a therapist to develop workable coping mechanisms to help with emotional regulation and stress management.

Overall, treating self-destructive behaviour requires a comprehensive and tailored approach that integrates therapy, medication when appropriate and a support network. With personalised care, individuals can overcome their self-destructive behaviours and recover.

How can you help someone who has self-destructive behaviours?

If someone you know is struggling with self-destructive behaviours, you need to approach the situation carefully. Empathy and understanding are vital.

Here are some strategies to support and intervene effectively:

Understanding the role of support and intervention

Recognise that your role as a supporter is vital in helping someone with self-destructive behaviours. Being present, willing to listen and non-judgemental is crucial. Understand that addressing self-destructive behaviours often requires professional intervention and your support can encourage them to seek the help they need.

Communication strategies for approaching the individual

Approach the individual with empathy, compassion and sensitivity. Choose an appropriate time and private setting to have a conversation. Use active listening skills, expressing your concern without being confrontational. Avoid judgemental language and focus on understanding their experiences and emotions.

Encouraging professional help and providing resources

Emphasise the importance of seeking professional help. Encourage them to consult a mental health professional or a healthcare provider experienced in treating self-destructive behaviours. Offer to assist in finding suitable resources, such as therapists, support groups or treatment facilities. Provide them with information about local helplines and mental health organisations that can offer guidance and support.

Maintaining your own well-being

Supporting someone with self-destructive behaviours can be emotionally challenging. It is important not to neglect your own well-being when supporting someone else. Connect with friends, family or support groups who can provide understanding and guidance.

Talking to Family

Preventing self-destructive behaviours

Preventing self-destructive behaviours involves a proactive approach focused on awareness, education and fostering a supportive environment. By promoting resilience and positive coping skills, we can empower individuals to navigate life’s challenges in healthier ways.

Here are key strategies for prevention and self-care:

Promoting awareness and education

Increasing awareness about self-destructive behaviours is crucial in prevention efforts. Educate yourself and others about the signs, risk factors and impact of these behaviours. Share resources, articles and information to raise awareness in your community. By normalising conversations around mental health and self-destructive behaviours, we can reduce stigma and encourage early intervention.

Building resilience and positive coping skills

Building resilience means you’re less likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours. Individuals should be encouraged to develop healthy coping mechanisms, such as engaging in hobbies, practising mindfulness or seeking therapy. A healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, proper nutrition and adequate sleep all contribute to well-being and the ability to cope too.

Encouraging a supportive and non-judgemental environment

Foster open communication and provide a listening ear to those in need. Cultivate empathy, understanding and compassion within your community, school or workplace. Encourage inclusive and supportive relationships where individuals feel comfortable seeking help without fear of judgement or rejection.

Identifying and addressing risk factors

Recognise and address potential risk factors associated with self-destructive behaviours. These may include past trauma, mental health conditions, substance abuse or adverse life events. Encourage early intervention by promoting access to mental health services and resources. Advocate for policies that support mental health initiatives and ensure adequate funding for prevention programmes.

Practising self-care

When supporting others, it’s important to look after yourself too. Be sure to engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Set boundaries to prevent burnout and seek support when needed. Remember that self-care is not selfish but essential for your ability to support others effectively.

Final thoughts on self-destructive behaviour

To summarise, self-destructive behaviours are relatively common and varied. They can have a huge impact on a person’s life as well as those around them. Physical, emotional and behavioural indicators can serve as red flags and recognising the signs of self-destructive behaviours is crucial for early intervention. Furthermore, by understanding the underlying factors and triggers behind self-destructive behaviours we can help find the most appropriate treatment. Of course, seeking professional help is crucial for accurate diagnosis and comprehensive assessment, particularly to identify co-occurring disorders. Though treatment approaches for self-destructive behaviours often involve therapy, medication and support groups, individualised treatment plans are important. Finally, it can be challenging to support someone with self-destructive behaviours. It requires empathy and effective communication strategies. However, with the right support and treatment, a person displaying self-destructive behaviours can recover well.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.

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