Nothing is so disheartening as watching someone you love spiral into self-destructive behaviors. Self-destructive behaviors are those actions that cause physical or mental harm. When self-destructive tendencies become habitual, as when a pattern of these high-risk behaviors forms, there is an increased risk of permanent negative outcomes or even premature death.
Self-destructive actions can be the result of an intentional decision to engage in high-risk behaviors, or the behaviors can emerge subconsciously in response to the individual’s feelings of low self-worth. Some people may not even realize they are behaving in ways that could harm them. The act of engaging in risky behaviors becomes a type of coping mechanism for managing negative emotions. The earlier that a pattern of self-destructive behavior is recognized, acknowledged for what it is, and treated accordingly, the better the recovery outcome.
What Causes Self-Destructive Behaviors?
Self-destructive behaviors constitute a broad category of behaviors that may be unintentional or intentional in nature. These behaviors may spring from negative life experiences, such as surviving abuse or neglect. Someone who has lived through traumatic events, such as the sudden death of a loved one, may have been so emotionally scarred that they seem to be giving up on their future as observed by their self destructive behaviors.
Although some individuals adopt self-destructive behaviors in response to something that has happened to them, in other individuals these behaviors may be symptoms of a serious mental health disorder. Certain disorders, such as schizophrenia and some personality disorders, are associated with self-destructive behaviors. Regardless of the cause of the destructive tendencies, the behaviors are an outward sign of emotional dysregulation and should be evaluated by a mental health professional.
8 Signs of Self Destructive Behavior
There is a wide range of negative behaviors that when left unaddressed and untreated can result in a poor outcome. Some of these self-destructive behaviors begin as a means of seeking gratification or pleasure before eventually resulting in disappointment or possibly devastating consequences. The following are signs of self-destructive tendencies:
- Pessimism. Some will cultivate a cycle of negative thinking that becomes self-fulfilling. These individuals cling to negative thoughts about everything, and convince themselves that there is nothing worth living for. Someone who has a negative mindset is resistant to anyone attempts to offer a positive take on things, seeming to be beholden to the dour and pessimistic mentality that justifies their own low self-esteem. The risk is the perpetually negative individual may slip into serious depression when they lose jobs and relationships, possibly becoming a suicide risk.
- Substance abuse. Drug or alcohol abuse is an example of behaviors that may have initially been pleasurable before becoming a serious threat to wellness. Individuals who fall into substance abuse are in the active process of imposing harm to their bodies and minds through the use of psychoactive substances. Some will have a genetic predisposition for addiction and wind up drug or alcohol dependent, which can have devastating consequences.
- Compulsive behaviors. When a behavior becomes compulsive it will lead to negative consequences, which in turn lead to an increased risk for depression. Examples of compulsive behaviors include disordered eating, such as binge eating, gambling addiction, sex addiction, and shopping addiction. These activities all share the common trait of acting on impulse, and then the disordered behavior becomes a compulsive habit with negative outcomes.
- Sabotaging relationships. Rooted in the deep-seated belief that they are not worthy of love, someone will sabotage their relationships—romantic, friendships, and coworkers. The individual will consciously or subconsciously be so caustic that people are repelled by their behaviors. These might include manipulation, excessive neediness, jealousy, aggressive or violent acts, gaslighting, or undermining the other person’s reputation through gossip.
- Martyrdom. Individuals who are particularly needy for attention and approval may go to great lengths to draw attention to themselves. They wish to portray themselves as the person who has made great sacrifices for others, and will boast about their supposed selfless acts in hopes of gaining approval. One aspect of this is an attempt to lay guilt on others who will appear to be less virtuous and giving, in an attempt to gain a position of power. This kind of social manipulation or corporate climbing usually leads to a negative outcome.
- Neglecting responsibilities. Some individuals are so immersed in their self-pity or self-defeatist attitude that they begin to neglect their obligations. With all their attention centered on themselves, they fail to keep up with regular responsibilities, such as paying bills on time, childcare responsibilities, or work-related obligations. This can result in financial problems, custody challenges, or loss of employment.
- Isolating behaviors. Someone who withdraws from social contact may be experiencing clinical depression, and if so will also have several other depression symptoms present. However, social isolation is also a self-destructive action, as human beings require interaction with others to remain healthy and happy in life. When someone intentionally isolates themselves from friends and family members they may be acting on the belief that they are not worthy of love.
- Self-harm. One of the more obvious self destructive behaviors is self-harm. This involves an individual self-inflicting physical damage to their body. Self-harm can involve cutting, burning, head banging, pinching and bruising the skin, attempts to break bones, and pulling hair out. People who engage in self-injury are attempting to find an outlet for emotional distress, and often have a mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, trauma disorder, or a personality disorder.
Getting Someone Help for Self-Destructive Behaviors
When someone is assessed for their self destructive behaviors they may be surprised to discover that they have acquired the behaviors as a coping mechanism for an emotional issue they hadn’t considered. For example, someone who abuses alcohol may not realize that the compulsion to use alcohol is a response to wanting to mask uncomfortable depression symptoms. Another person may become aware that their continual self-sabotaging of any meaningful relationships stems from a deep sense of abandonment experienced as a child.
Treatment for self-destructive behaviors will center on discovery. Why is there a need to gamble? What is behind the excessive online spending on unneeded items? Why are you hiding away from friends and family members? Getting to the root problem is the key to resolving the resulting self-destructive behaviors.
When diagnosing someone who exhibits the self-destructive tendencies it is important to differentiate between those who have maladaptive behaviors in response to stressors and those who have a mental health disorder. Making this distinction helps define the treatment path. Treatment interventions include:
Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is a core treatment element for individuals who display self-destructive behaviors. Therapy provides a safe space for the patient to work through any contributing emotional or psychological issues, such as grief and loss, a history of trauma or abuse, a negative life event, or lifelong relationship struggles. A therapist will utilize evidence-based psychotherapies, relying heavily on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as this type of short-term therapy can help patients reshape their thought patterns toward more positive and productive self-talk. Other types of therapy include dialectical behavior therapy, attachment theory, psychodynamic therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and interpersonal therapy.
Addiction counseling. If the self destructive behaviors include substance abuse, the treatment plan will include addiction treatment. This may begin with a medical detox and withdrawal before proceeding on to addiction counseling.
Antidepressants. There are four types of antidepressants available, including SSRIs, SNRIs, MAOIs, and tricyclic antidepressants that may help the individual. With nearly thirty different antidepressants available, a medication will be trialed based on the specific diagnosis. Antidepressants may take several weeks before alleviating the symptoms of depression. Sometimes a patient may need to trial several drugs before finding the one with minimal side effects.
Psychosocial education. Because many of the self-destructive behaviors involve underlying interpersonal issues that inhibit forming healthy relationships, the individual may benefit from improving their interpersonal relating skills. These tools might include conflict resolution skills, effective communication skills, anger management, and emotion regulation.
Adjunctive therapies. Depending on the diagnosis, the treatment plan may include augmentative therapies such as eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
Holistic therapies. Complementary therapies that revolve around self-care will further enhance the treatment experience. These are activities that help the individual learn how to self-sooth and achieve a more relaxed and peaceful state of mind. Mental health treatment now includes holistic therapies, such as practicing mindfulness, yoga, acupuncture, meditation, therapeutic massage, equine therapy, aromatherapy, and art and music therapy, aromatherapy, and guided meditation.
Lifestyle counseling. Individuals will receive counseling for improving wellness through making lifestyle changes. These include making dietary changes, creating a fitness plan for regular exercise, and improving sleep quality. All of these areas impact mental health, so learning how to establish healthy lifestyle habits is an important aspect of treatment.
For many individuals, self-destructive behaviors are a call for help. He or she may not even be aware that they are causing serious harm to their mental and physical health and even jeopardizing their futures. If you or a loved one is exhibiting self-destructive tendencies, reach out for the help and support you deserve.
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