You’ve probably done something self-destructive at some point. Just about everyone has. Most of the time, it’s not intentional and doesn’t become a habit.

Self-destructive behaviors are those that are bound to harm you physically or mentally. It may be unintentional. Or, it may be that you know exactly what you’re doing, but the urge is too strong to control.

It may be due to earlier life experiences. It can also be related to a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

Read on as we look at some self-destructive behaviors, how to recognize them, and what to do about them.

Self-destructive behavior is when you do something that’s sure to cause self-harm, whether it’s emotional or physical. Some self-destructive behavior is more obvious, such as:

  • attempting suicide
  • binge eating
  • compulsive activities like gambling, gaming, or shopping
  • impulsive and risky sexual behavior
  • overusing alcohol and drugs
  • self-injury, such as cutting, hair pulling, burning

There are also more subtle forms of self-sabotage. You may not realize you’re doing it, at least on a conscious level. Examples of this are:

  • being self-derogatory, insisting you’re not smart, capable, or attractive enough
  • changing yourself to please others
  • clinging to someone who is not interested in you
  • engaging in alienating or aggressive behavior that pushes people away
  • maladaptive behaviors, such as chronic avoidance, procrastination, and passive-aggressiveness
  • wallowing in self-pity

The frequency and severity of these behaviors vary from person to person. For some, they’re infrequent and mild. For others, they’re frequent and dangerous. But they always cause problems.

You might be more prone to behave in a self-destructive manner if you’ve experienced:

  • alcohol or drug use
  • childhood trauma, neglect, or abandonment
  • emotional or physical abuse
  • friends who self-injure
  • low self-esteem
  • social isolation, exclusion

If you have one self-destructive behavior, it may raise the likelihood of developing another.

Research shows that self-harm is common in both people who have and do not have a mental health diagnosis. It can happen to anyone of any age, although teens and young adults are more likely to engage in physical self-injury.

Self-destructive behavior can stem from a mental health condition, such as:

  • Anxiety disorders: Characterized by debilitating fear, worry, and distress.
  • Depression: Overwhelming sadness and loss of interest. It usually involves a variety of physical symptoms, as well.
  • Eating disorders: Conditions like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.
  • Personality disorders: Inability to relate to other people in a healthy way.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is an anxiety disorder that starts after you’ve experienced a traumatic event. Studies show that PTSD and impulsive personality traits may put you at risk of self-destructive behavior. The rate of self-destructive behavior is particularly high among veterans who have been exposed to trauma.

Self-destructive behavior can be a coping mechanism that you didn’t realize you’d developed.

As an example, you put yourself down at work. As a result, you don’t get the promotion you wanted. That’s self-destructive. If you grew up in the shadow of constant rejection, this could be your way of doing it before someone else gets the chance.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental health disorder. Once you recognize it for what it is, you can replace self-destructive behavior with something that serves your own best interest.

A pattern of self-destructive behavior or any amount of physical self-harm is another matter. These behaviors have serious consequences. If that sounds like your situation, it’s time to seek help.

Start by seeing a qualified mental health professional for an evaluation. An interview will help the therapist learn more about your behavior and its clinical significance.

It’s important to determine if self-destructive behavior is part of a mental health disorder. This knowledge will help guide treatment.

Criteria for a diagnosis of non-suicidal self-injury include:

  • harming your body without suicidal intent on at least 5 days within the past year
  • doing this to promote positive feelings, relieve negative thoughts or feelings, or to resolve a difficulty
  • preoccupation with self-injury or frequent urges to self-injure
  • feeling significant distress about it
  • it’s not due to another condition

In one study, researchers caution that self-harming behavior can be misdiagnosed as borderline personality disorder.

Finding help for self-destructive behavior

Help is available. If you, or someone you love, is self-destructive, here are some resources to help:

Treatment will be tailored to your specific needs. Frequency and severity of symptoms are important considerations. Therapy may include:

  • Talk therapy. Talk therapy can help you understand the origin of your self-destructive behaviors. You can also learn how to manage stress and deal with challenges in a healthier way. Sessions can be one-on-one with your therapist, with family involvement, or in a group setting.
  • Behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy can be used for short or long term. Your therapist can help you become more aware of triggers and how to respond in a less disruptive way.

Any other conditions also have to be addressed. This may involve:

Medication may be used to treat conditions, such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • PTSD
  • severe self-injury or suicide attempt

Your doctor may recommend a combination of treatments.

Risky, self-destructive behaviors can increase the risk of poor mental health outcomes and premature death.

But you can fully recover from self-destructive behavior. How long it takes depends on:

  • frequency and severity of symptoms
  • whether you have other conditions, such as depression or PTSD
  • your specific self-destructive behavior and whether it’s linked to such things as alcohol abuse or an eating disorder

Your outlook depends on your individual circumstances. We do know that therapy and medication can be effective in treating a variety of mental health disorders. Your doctor will be able to give you an overview of what you can expect.

Self-destructive behavior is when you repeatedly do things that will harm you physically, mentally, or both. It can range from mild to life-threatening.

If you think you’re engaging in self-destructive behavior, you probably are. You don’t have to live this way. You deserve better.

See your doctor or find a qualified mental health professional. In therapy, you can work through the cause and effects of self-destructive behavior. You can find new coping skills and practice alternate behaviors. You can live a happier, less self-destructive life.