Self-Injury and Eating Disorders

What is Self-Injury?

Self-injury is characterized as a deliberate and direct injury or damage of body tissue, usually intended without suicidal ideation.  Other terms synonymous with self-injury are self-mutilation, self-harm, and self-poisoning.  The most familiar form of self-injury is cutting of the skin but also includes other behaviors, including scratching, hair-pulling, burning, beating or hitting body parts, intruding with wound healing, or the consumption of toxic substances or objects.

Although suicide is not typically the objective of self-harm, there is an increased risk of suicide in individuals engaging in these behaviors.  Research has demonstrated that individuals who inflict self-harm do so in order to relieve and regulate internal experiences, such as emotions, memories, and/or physical sensation.

Self-injury may be utilized as an attempt to release anger, escape emotional pain, or an effort to gain a sense of control. Self-injury is a co-occurring disorder.  If you or a loved one is struggling with self-injury, it is likely that another illness is involved as well, such as substance abuse or an eating disorder.

Self-Injury Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of self-harm include the following:

  • Fresh scratches, cuts, bruises or other observable wounds
  • Broken bones
  • Several scars resulting from cuts or burns
  • Frequent isolation
  • Social and familial difficulties
  • Use of long sleeves or pants to cover injuries
  • Claims to having recurrent accidents or collisions

What Causes Self-Injury

There are several correlating factors that can contribute to the risk of engaging in self-injurious behaviors.  Such factors include psychological, genetic, substance abuse, medical history, and familial components.

Individuals who frequently self-harm experience many negative implications, including physical consequences, low self-esteem, depression, relationship difficulties, and in some cases, suicide.  There is a correlation between individuals with eating disorders and sself-harmbehaviors.

Connection & Relationship between Self-Injury and Eating Disorders

Men and women who sufferer with eating disorders have an increased chance of engaging in self-harm behaviors; likewise, self-harming behaviors may be exhibited as eating disorder symptoms, such as induced vomiting or exercising excessively with the principal intention of inflicting pain or self-injury.  Therefore, when considering and evaluating eating disorder symptoms, determining the function of the symptom becomes essential.

Treatment of Eating Disorders and Self-Injury

Treating co-occurring diagnoses is essential to the progression of recovery and healing from both the eating disorder and self-injurious behaviors.  Treatment approaches should be individualized and encompass a combination of psychotherapeutic methods and medications.

Forms of psychotherapy that may be useful in treating eating disorders and self-injury behaviors are family intervention, group therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).  A comprehensive treatment plan will allow for the improvement of the behaviors seen in both self-injury and eating disorders for you or your loved one.

Articles on Eating Disorders & Addiction

  • Eating disorders are seldom independent destructive behaviors. Often, they are part of a co-occurring issue. It is not uncommon for individuals suffering from eating disorders to simultaneously engage in other behaviors that are self-injurious. The sufferer can become trapped within a dangerous cycle of continual self-destruction. Read this article to learn more about Self-Harm as a Co-Occurring Issue of Eating Disorders

Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 3, 2012

Page last updated: September 3, 2012
Published on, Eating Disorders Help & Information