What Are the Common Causes of Self-Harm?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2019
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Any deliberate action that is taken with the intent of hurting oneself without committing suicide, such as cutting or burning one's skin, is considered self-harm. Though many different factors can lead one to intentional self-injury, mental illness ranks highly among the common causes of self-harm. Other causes of self-harm may be related to one's social environment, genetic background, or other issues relating to family history. The various causes of self-harm also tend to relate to high levels of stress or to emotional dissociation, both of which can lead one to self-harming tendencies. Those who harm themselves because of stress tend to feel calm and in control afterward while those who harm themselves because of emotional distance and dissociation tend to feel more alive and connected.

Mental illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder, are common causes of self-harm, as they can lead to both high levels of stress and to feelings of dissociation and emotional numbness. Many people do not know how to handle the tumultuous emotional states that often result from mental illnesses. In some cases, physical pain provides a temporary refuge from emotional pain, so people self-harm in an effort to distract themselves from their turbulent emotional states. Self-harm can, however, lead to further emotional unrest, as most people do not have unambiguously positive feelings about harming themselves.


Some causes of self-harm can arise from environmental issues as well, such as abuse by a family member or war near one's home. Exactly how such different situations lead to self-harm varies from case to case. Parental abuse may, for instance, cause one to feel inadequate, so he may injure himself out of feelings of self-loathing. Alternatively, living in a war-torn environment may leave one emotionally raw and dissociated, and feeling as if he has little control over anything. In such as case, he may engage in self-harm to re-establish some sense of control over his life and emotional state.

There are many other causes of self-harm that are only tenuously related to mental illness or to environmental factors. Some genetic conditions have been linked to increased self-destructive tendencies, for instance. Likewise, some forms of substance abuse, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms can lead to the development of self-harming tendencies.

In rare cases, self-harm may be an intentional and calculated act. One may harm oneself in order to draw attention to the underlying emotional pain in the hopes of finding help. Alternatively, one may use self-harm in order to manipulate the actions of other people. Though such manipulation may seem malicious, it is, in itself, often evidence of underlying emotional suffering.


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