April 09, 2023 By Leah Malone

What Are Self-Destructive Behaviors?


Throughout life, all of us will develop coping mechanisms for managing difficult emotions and experiences. Oftentimes, these coping mechanisms are positive, such as engaging in exercise or mindfulness practices. However, many people will develop coping mechanisms that cause them physical or mental harm. These are also known as self-destructive behaviors. Becoming familiar with self-destructive behaviors and their consequences can encourage individuals to seek professional treatment to overcome them.

Understanding Self-Destructive Behaviors

Self-destructive behaviors are any behaviors that cause emotional, physical, or mental harm to oneself. These behaviors often occur in patterns that vary in severity. When these behaviors are mild, they can interfere with social, financial, or interpersonal aspects of an individual’s life. When they are more severe, they can interfere with an individual’s ability to function normally, potentially causing life-threatening harm.

Intentional Self-Harm vs. Unintentional Self-Harm

It is not uncommon for people to believe that self-destructive behaviors are both obvious and intentional. However, it is vital to understand that there are both intentional and unintentional forms of self-harm or self-destruction. Intentional self-harming behaviors occur with purposeful intent. Unintentional self-harming behaviors occur unconsciously or without purposeful intent.

In either case, self-destructive behaviors may appear to provide temporary relief and pleasure for the individual engaging in them. However, these behaviors often have lingering long-term effects that can impact their development, growth, and ability to function.

Examples of Self-Destructive Behaviors

In addition to obvious forms of self-harm, there are many types of self-destructive behaviors. Recognizing these behaviors and the harm that they can bring to one’s life is vital for overcoming them.

Common forms of self-destructive behaviors that may be either intentional or unintentional can include:

  • Lacking personal hygiene
  • Alcohol and drug use or abuse
  • Eating in disorganized patterns
  • Sabotaging relationships or career life
  • Engaging in uncontrolled compulsions such as gambling
  • Staying in a toxic relationship
  • Isolating from family and friends
  • Participating in negative self-talk
  • Experiencing patterns of self-destructive thoughts
  • Procrastinating
  • Doomscrolling
  • Overspending
  • Neglecting medical care
  • Having suicidal ideation

What Causes Self-Destructive Behaviors?

Whether or not a person engages in self-destructive behavior intentionally often depends on the underlying motives for the behavior. For example, research by the American Journal of Psychiatry concludes that childhood trauma often contributes to the intentional initiation of self-destructive behavior. Further, the lack of secure attachments throughout an individual’s life can perpetuate these behaviors. The article explains, “Patients who repetitively attempt suicide or engage in chronic self-cutting are prone to react to current stresses as a return of childhood trauma, neglect, and abandonment.”

Another explanation for the development of self-destructive behaviors is that they stem from mental health disorders. In these cases, self-harming behaviors may be intentional or unintentional. For instance, an individual who struggles with debilitating symptoms of anxiety may turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. Meanwhile, an individual who unknowingly struggles with an eating disorder may restrict their diet without understanding the harm that it may cause in their life.

There are a variety of other possible causes for self-destructive behaviors. Some of these causes can include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Issues with low self-esteem
  • Unfulfilled needs
  • Exposure to trauma in adulthood
  • Remaining in a toxic or otherwise unhealthy partnership
  • Prior substance abuse

Overcoming Self-Destructive Behaviors

Leaving self-destructive behaviors unaddressed can lead to a plethora of physical and mental health consequences. Fortunately, there are several ways individuals can work to reduce self-destructive behavior. For many, the first step requires them to improve their decision-making skills and recognize when decisions may lead to moments of self-destruction. Following this, individuals will need to work on reducing their overall stress levels and increasing their sense of control over their lives.

It is vital to recognize the value that professional treatment can have in helping individuals address and overcome self-destructive behaviors. Individuals who are seeking recovery from substance abuse, mental health disorders, and trauma can find refuge in treatments, therapies, and compassionate staff members at Grace Recovery Center.

Engage in Exercise

Exercise is one of many healthy coping mechanisms that individuals can use to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. By engaging in consistent exercise, individuals can work to improve their self-esteem and limit potential self-destructive behaviors. It is important to note that over-exercising can become a self-destructive behavior. Be sure to take rest days and set limits beforehand to eliminate the potential for exercise to become self-destructive.

Prioritize Sleep

Sleep can also be a useful coping mechanism to replace self-destructive behaviors. When a person allow themselves time for their bodies and minds to rest, they can better navigate challenging emotions in their waking life. Additionally, getting adequate sleep can help to prevent worsening physical or mental health problems.

Practice Moderation

Unintentional self-destructive behaviors can surface when individuals do not set limits for themselves. For those who tend to overdo things, practicing moderation can help. Learning how to set limits and do things with intention can help individuals live in ways that better align with their values.

Self-destructive behaviors are ones that cause physical, mental, or emotional harm to oneself. These behaviors may be intentional or unintentional, often stemming from unresolved childhood trauma. Addressing self-destructive behaviors by utilizing professional treatment can be incredibly valuable for lasting health, well-being, and recovery. If you are a woman seeking recovery, Grace Recovery is here to walk with you on your journey. We offer transitional living homes for women in recovery from substance abuse, mental health disorders, and trauma. Additionally, we can connect you with a variety of treatment programs and services to ensure your needs are met as you heal. To learn more about our facility, call us today at (737) 237-9663.

About Author

Leah Malone

Learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings can be painful and disturbing at times. When Leah was able to see her behavior patterns and decided there was enough pain to be disturbed, she became motivated to make changes and accept the work that needed to be done to heal. She needed direction and had no clue how to heal on her own. Through a connection with God, authentic connection with others, honesty, willingness, and humility, Leah is now in recovery from addiction and trauma.

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