talk therapy

What Is Self-Destructive Behavior?

Published on February 11, 2021 by First Responder Wellness

First responders have the unique challenge of experiencing taxing mental hurdles every day on the job. This requires the utmost focus on personal well-being, which is not an effortless thing to sustain. As a result, some people may find themselves turning to easier forms of coping that can ultimately cause harm.

Self-destructive behavior occurs when an individual engages in an activity that causes emotional or physical self-harm ranging from mild to life-threatening. This behavior can be a detrimental coping mechanism a person has developed to deal with unpleasant experiences and emotions. It can also stem from a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. 

How To Identify Self-Destructive Behavior

The frequency and severity of self-destructive behavior among individuals may vary depending on the person. Some of this behavior can be more apparent such as:

  • Attempting suicide
  • Self-injury, such as cutting, burning, hair-pulling, hitting 
  • Binge eating 
  • Over-use of drugs and alcohol
  • Compulsive activity, such as gambling

There are also more subtle forms of this behavior, such as:

  • Being derogatory
  • Alienating yourself, or having aggressive behavior that pushes people away
  • Changing yourself to please others
  • Indulging in self-pity
  • Chronic avoidance 

Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI)

According to an article on the criteria differentiation of self-injury, there are two types of self-destructive behavior: suicide and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). The article reports that “NSSI seemingly has always been present in society and in approx. 10% of the population worldwide in recent times.” NSSI has only recently been added as a separate class of behavior to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) by the American Psychiatric Association.

Some of the criteria for diagnosing non-suicidal self-injury include:

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

More specifically, A recent study also shows that reckless and self-destructive behavior (RSDB) among trauma-exposed veterans with post-traumatic stress occurred in 74.4% of the sample. Of this sample, the most common behaviors included “alcohol/drug abuse (42.8%), driving while intoxicated (29.4%), gambling (24.7%), and aggression (23.1%).” 


Treatment for self-destructive behavior is tailored to each individual’s needs based on the severity of their symptoms and circumstances. Some other conditions may also have to be addressed in relation to self-destructive behavior, involving addiction treatment and mental health management. In general, therapy for self-destructive behavior may include:

  • Talk Therapy: This encompasses various treatment techniques to help a person identify and change troubling thoughts, emotions, and behavior. This treatment can help an individual understand the origin of their self-destructive behavior and learn how to manage stress in a healthier way. 
  • Behavioral Therapy: This form of therapy can help individuals become more aware of their self-destructive and unhealthy behaviors, identify their triggers, and respond to them in less disruptive ways. It functions on the premise that behaviors are learned, and therefore maladaptive behaviors can be changed while more desirable behaviors are reinforced. 

A Toolbox of Healthy Coping Mechanisms

It can be challenging to change self-destructive behavior when the urge to self-harm is strong. However, keeping healthy coping mechanisms readily in your mind can help you next time you are struggling. 

  • First, think about why you want to engage in self-harm. People self-harm for various reasons, so understanding your motivation and triggers can help you choose coping strategies that will be most helpful for you. Self-harm may stem from generally one of two urges: either you have so much emotion that it is overwhelming, and you self-harm to get a release, or you experience emotional numbness, and in the desire to feel something, you self-harm. 
  • Face intense emotions with intense physical exercise. Emotions can build up and lead to a feeling of tension in the body. A healthier way to release these emotions is to exert your body. Going for a run, doing pushups, doing yoga, or even dancing around the room can allow you to move out of your head and into your body. 
  • Focus on your breathing. Slowing down and taking deep breaths can help you physically relax and mentally calm you down. This can help you refocus on your emotions from a clearer headspace.
  • Focus on another productive activity. Release your emotions in a creative outlet such as playing or listening to music, writing, or drawing.
  • Use an app created to help people cope with self-harm. It can be hard to remember healthy coping mechanisms. However, this is where technology can help. There are multiple apps such as Calm Harm and Self-Heal that offer prompts and ideas of what to do when the urge to self-harm arises.
  • Talk to a loved one. Reaching out to a family member or a friend can help you take your mind off the urge. Sometimes having a conversation can distract you even if you do not divulge exactly what you are going through.


While these healthy coping suggestions for self-destructive behavior can be helpful, they are not an alternative to professional care if you feel unsafe. First responders have the unique challenge of experiencing taxing mental hurdles on the job, which requires the utmost focus on personal well-being. As a result, it can be difficult to maintain these healthy routines after time, and some individuals may begin to use maladaptive behaviors as a way to cope. Self-destructive behavior may be unintentional, or you may know precisely what you’re doing, but the urge to self-harm is too strong to control. If you or a loved one is showing signs of self-destructive behavior or other mental health concerns, First Responder Wellness is here to help. We are a trustworthy and effective treatment center exclusively treating those who put themselves on the frontlines in service of the public. For more information about our wellness programs, call us today at (888) 743-0490.