Common Self-Harm Behaviors

Contributed Article by Kathleen Someah, Nutritional Assistant New Dawn Treatment Centers

It is not uncommon for individuals suffering from eating disorders to simultaneously engage in additional self-injurious behaviors, (SIB). Eating disorders themselves are harmful acts, and when combined with additional harmful behaviors, one often becomes trapped within a dangerous cycle of continual self-destruction. While there is little empirically supported clinical significance to expound upon the roots of this relationship, it is evident that self-harming tendencies are a co-occurring issue of eating disorders.

Such behaviors are described as deliberate acts of self-destruction that rest outside the sphere of what is considered socially acceptable and provide an individual with either a sense of pleasure or with a means of ameliorating suffering. Common forms of self-harming behavior include skin cutting, needle sticking, hair pulling and burning one’s flesh.  According to a community-based study, Welch and Fairburn (1996) reported elevated rates of drug abuse as well as self-harm tendencies associated with women suffering from Bulimia Nervosa (BN) when compared to control groups. Additional studies found a correlation between impulsive self-injurious behaviors and individuals diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. This finding was particularly common amongst those suffering from the binge-purge subtype of anorexia nervosa (Favaro & Santonastaso, 2000). Further studies have revealed similar findings.

According to a study conducted by Favazza (1987), the rate of self-injurious behaviors is relatively high for both anorexic and bulimic individuals. Nearly 35% of people struggling from anorexia nervosa engage in acts of self-destruction while nearly 25% of bulimics engage in similarly related behaviors. Additionally, it is expected that 50% of self-mutilators have a history of either anorexia or bulimia. Although there is limited knowledge about the connection between self-harming tendencies and eating disorders, it is speculated that such self-harming behaviors complement disordered eating in the sense that these behaviors help to temporarily relieve anxiety, and serve as a physical manifestation of such distress.

Meg Burton, a Public Relations intern for Project Heal offered insight concerning the motivations driving such destructive behaviors. “People with eating disorders tend to take out their feelings on themselves. Self mutilation is really similar to eating disorders in the sense that it is an act of extreme self hatred.” According to Burton, self-mutilation is different from drug or alcohol abuse in the sense that it allows an individual alleviate difficult emotions while also maintaining control over the situation.

Many individuals resort to cutting or other forms of self-mutilation when their eating disorder stops serving its purpose. For some people struggling with difficult emotions, anorexia and bulimia serve the initial goal of helping to ease the pain of depression, anxiety, loneliness or related sentiments. However, when the initial effects of the eating disorder wear off, individuals often search for related behavioral outlets to satisfy a similar purpose.

It is not uncommon for those struggling with anorexia or bulimia to have a history of trauma, whether physical or emotional. All too frequently individuals turn toward self-destruction as a means of either numbing out from previous traumas, or as a way of physically manifesting the pain felt within. By purging, restricting, cutting, or practicing other forms of self-hatred, individuals find temporary solace. “People make their internal wounds obvious by making them external, and therefore more diagnosable,” said Danielle Aubin, Intake Coordinator at New Dawn Treatment Centers. This makes it easier to get treatment or attention of some kind because others are able to visually see their deep suffering.”

Whether practiced independently or in combination with an ongoing eating disorder, self-harming behaviors necessitate concern. Although cutting and other related behaviors may not be a conscious suicide attempt, such physical disfigurement can lead to unintentional complications and therefore merits concern from physicians and other mental health professionals.

New Dawn’s mission is to provide tools for positive and lasting change in a safe and compassionate setting where physical, spiritual, and emotional healing can be cultivated. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to be free from his or her eating disorder to create a life of recovery, joy, and empowerment.


Fabazza, A.R. (1987). Bodies under siege: Self-mutilation in culture and psychiatry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Favaro, A., Santonastaso, P. (2000). Self-injurious behavior in anorexia nervosa. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 188(8), 537-542.

Welch, S.L., Fairburn, C.G. (1996). Impulsivity or comorbidity in bulimia nervosa: A controlled study of deliberate self-harm and alcohol and drug misuse in a community sample. British Journal of Psychiatry, 169. 451-458.

 Articles published by guest authors do not necessarily express the opinion of Eating Disorder Hope. We strive to provide a wide array of articles, from different perspectives, and offer respect and consideration of various views of issues related to eating disorders.

Published Date: September 3, 2012
Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 3, 2012
Page last updated: November 7, 2012
Published on, Eating Disorders Treatment Information