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How to detect and manage self-destructive behaviours

It's easy to think that self-destructive behaviours are apparent. Like, say, having a drug habit that's way out of control. But many self-destructive behaviours are a lot less evident. For example, going to bed at different hours every night or not getting enough sleep is a self-destructive behaviour because it negatively impacts your health. A healthy amount of sleep at regular hours is essential, not only for alertness but also for your immune system and bodily functions at large.

Maria Montgomery
· 12 min read

It's easy to think that self-destructive behaviours are apparent. Like, say, having a drug habit that's way out of control. But many self-destructive behaviours are a lot less evident. For example, going to bed at different hours every night or not getting enough sleep is a self-destructive behaviour because it negatively impacts your health. A healthy amount of sleep at regular hours is essential, not only for alertness but also for your immune system and bodily functions at large.

So let's have a look at self-destructive behaviours—what they are, how to spot them, how to prevent them, and how to overcome them.

What are self-destructive behaviours?

A self-destructive behaviour is a behaviour that causes a negative outcome. It could be anything that leads to a negative outcome. For example, do you always talk too much when nervous? And does it leads to the people around you becoming agitated and less willing to speak with you? If so, it's a self-destructive behaviour.

More major self-destructive behaviours include:

  • Substance misuse
  • Getting involved with abusive partners/friends
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm and suicide attempts
  • Risky sexual behaviours

What causes self-destructive behaviour?

Self-destructive behaviours often start as coping mechanisms. You get too stressed at work, so you binge-watch Netflix at night or get drunk.

Similarly, if you as a child were abused and tried to cope with the pain, you might have turned to drugs, food, work, exercise, or alcohol to numb yourself. Anything to keep your mind off the pain. As it becomes a habit, you end up spending your life dodging pain using external forces. These habits often turn out detrimental for a happy life.

People who have undergone some form of trauma or abuse are therefore more likely to suffer from self-destructive behaviour. However, some self-destructive behaviours can also stem from poor habits.

Some habits, on the outside, look more healthy than others. Exercise is healthier than doing drugs, for example. But if exercise is used only as a tool for escapism, it often becomes compulsive and will create a pattern of avoidance in life. What's more, you might end up exercising more than what is healthy, and carry around whatever stress, or pain, you're trying to avoid instead of dealing with it.

How to detect self-destructive behaviours

Some self-destructive behaviours are obvious, others less so.

An easy way to find out what your behaviours are like is to think through your day. You can do in the morning before the day starts, and at night when the day is over.

In the morning, imagine hour for hour how the day will play out. What will you do? What will your behaviours be like? Is there anything in there that jumps out to you as destructive? Waking up too late to have time to pack your lunch and invariably, as lunchtime comes, ending up at McDonald's?

Do the same at night, reliving the day. Do any behaviours stand out? Yelling at your husband once again for not taking out the rubbish? Remember, a self-destructive behaviour is a frequent behaviour that causes a negative outcome for you.

Replacing self-destructive behaviour with constructive behaviour

Now, consider what the constructive behaviours are that you'd like to have instead of the actions you discovered to be destructive.

What would be more constructive than yelling at your husband to take out the rubbish? Asking him kindly and enthusiastically to take out the trash and hugging him when he does so? Positive reinforcement has proven to be a lot more beneficial than nagging. And if you don't know what to replace a behaviour with? Google it. In this case, "What can I do instead of nagging?" You will likely also find books you can read.

Also, consider things that will help you implement the right behaviours. If you want to wake up on time, you need to go to bed on time. If you can't stop watching a series on Netflix at night and end up binge-watching the entire night, don't watch Netflix at night. Or choose a movie that ends at a specific hour.

You can also implement a sleep routine, which can be helped by several apps. Even something as simple as the iPhone's Bedtime feature might turn out to be helpful.

Work out what would be a constructive behaviour to replace your self-destructive behaviour and then put in place things that will help you implement it.

How do I stop self-destructive behaviour?

As explained above, replacing it with constructive behaviour is the end goal. However, for some actions, it can be more tricky as there are underlying issues at play. So let's have a look at a couple such examples.

In the above example—getting stressed at work and dealing with the stress by binge-watching Netflix, or getting drunk—a healthier approach would be to:

  • Face the worst-case scenario—losing your job, or getting demoted—and come to terms with it.
  • Realise you can only do one task at a time—there is no other way to climb the mountain—so you might as well let the stress go and take one step at a time.
  • Take a few extra tasks with you home to lessen the workload for the next day, or come in early for the same reason, is a behaviour that can help relieve your stress.
  • Start a mindfulness practice that reduces stress—exercising, breathing exercises, and meditation have all shown promise in reducing stress, particularly when combined.

While each scenario is somewhat different, it usually starts with facing the issue at hand. That might mean facing the pain someone caused you, or the fear, or stress you're having. In turn, that means looking at the worst-case scenario. If you were abused, it might mean the worst-case scenario is looking at what you think others might make that mean about you if they find out. Or simply what you make that mean. Or the worst-case scenario might be ending up abused again.

In some instances, the first step involves discussing it with a trained therapist. It can make it both more comfortable and more effective as therapists able to see things you don't.

The second step is about letting go and taking precaution. If you, in the example above, are stressed because you believe that you might lose your job if you can't handle the workload, there are things you can do to minimise the risk. Such as doing a few extra things every day.

The third step is learning coping mechanisms that serve you. For example, regular exercise is likely to lower your stress, improve your mood, improve alertness, and improve your overall health. So long as it's not a form of escapism, exercise is a brilliant tool to help look after your mental health.

Likewise, meditation and breathing exercise can help lower stress. They can also help you face your thoughts and let them go, instead of trying to suppress them with unhelpful behaviours.

To sum this up, start by having a look at the underlying cause of your behaviour. Then face the worst-case scenario and take steps to prevent this from happening if possible/useful. Lastly, create helpful coping mechanisms that stop you from exercising the self-destructive behaviour.

The negative feedback loop of self-destructive behaviours

If you have a self-destructive behaviour, chances are you're in a negative feedback loop.

You don't like yourself, so you eat a cookie to feel better. You don't like that you ate a cookie, as you know it isn't good for your health. You have another cookie to punish yourself. You feel bad. You have a cookie because you feel bad and want to feel good, and on and on it goes.

You need to interrupt this negative feedback loop.

One way to do so is to set up structures to prevent yourself from indulging in the negative behaviours.

For example, if you tend to stress eat when you are alone, make sure your schedule is so packed you aren't alone. Or rather, that you aren't alone at times when you are prone to overeating.

Another way to interrupt the behaviour is to become conscious of what you are doing. As you are about to reach for that next cookie, ask yourself how it will genuinely make you feel? It won't make you feel nice, you realise. So what could you do instead to make you feel nice? Maybe have a hot bath? Go for a run? Call a friend?

Even better, ask yourself what a constructive behaviour would be? Sometimes, this isn't possible to exercise. An overly anxious person, fretting about their exam, won't simply sit down and study because that's the most constructive thing to do. First, they have to deal with the anxiety. And if that means running around the block, or having a hot bath, then that has to happen first. It's not as constructive as just sitting down to study right away, but it's a lot more productive than fretting for another three hours.

In extreme cases, a change of scenery or a complete overhaul of your routines may be necessary to disrupt the behaviour. You might be able to facilitate this yourself by going someplace else or changing your habits. If you can't do it yourself, you may need to go to a facility—such as a rehab or health clinic—or hire a professional. An example would be to have a personal trainer come to your home every morning to ensure you exercise instead of worrying about the day ahead.

Lastly, you need to change your thinking patterns. Let's have a look at that below.

Thinking patterns that will help improve your mental health

Unless it's merely a bad habit (like nagging, or watching Netflix at night), there's usually a reason we engage in self-destructive behaviours. An underlying cause, if you so like. This cause has some form of negative thinking attached. If you stop thinking those negative thoughts, you will eliminate the behaviour.

Most people in a negative feedback loop are focusing on what's not working in their lives. By shifting their focus to what's working, they start experiencing life differently.

You can spend all your time focusing on the fact that you didn't exercise today (making you much less likely to exercise tomorrow). Or you can consider the fact that you:

  • Made money
  • Ate well
  • Had a lovely conversation with your daughter
  • Had a coffee with a dear friend whom you greatly appreciate
  • Finished reading a self-help book
  • Have a roof over your head
  • Helped a friend with a task

If you consider all the things that went well, you're much more likely to snap out of your negative feedback loop.

The more positive routines you create in your life, the more positive thoughts you will think about yourself. These routines could include listening to personal development books on Scribd as you're driving to work, for example. Or walking instead of driving to the shops, having a green juice a day, or partaking in volunteering.

How do you practice self-care where your mental health is concerned?

As mentioned, exercising, meditating, and breathing exercises are all beneficial, ss are activities that make you feel good. For example, it's been proven that being social and practising volunteering help prevent and cure depression. It might also improve longevity.

Here's the deal when you focus on helping others: you forget about yourself. Whether or not you hit your fitness goals, or make more money, isn't as important as helping the other person. When you forget your egoic agenda, you often forget why you aren't feeling great and suddenly find yourself practising healthier behaviours.

Also, the above-mentioned small habits that you know are good for you are excellent ways of improving your overall mental wellbeing.

In closing

You can discover self-destructive behaviours by looking at what you expect yourself to do during the day, and what you actually did during the day. Whatever you repeatedly do that causes adverse outcomes can be considered self-destructive.

You change self-destructive behaviours by finding out what the constructive actions are that you want to replace them with. You may also have to look at the underlying thoughts causing the behaviours in the first place. And, if fear is involved, looking at what the worst-case scenario would be and coming to terms with that.

Then you implement the constructive behaviours by putting in place structures that help you do so—be it apps, routines, coaches, or what have you.

If you feel compelled to partake in the destructive behaviour and unable to perform the constructive behaviour, you might need to temporarily distract yourself by doing something positive. Such as going for a run to calm your nerves before sitting down to study for a test at work, instead of sitting by your desk doing nothing but freaking out for three hours straight. These can be seen as coping mechanisms.

Meditation, exercise and breathing exercises can help support you in forming good behaviours, as they will help improve your mental wellbeing.

Focusing on what's working in your life also tends to disrupt destructive behaviours. This is because the happier you are, the less likely you are to feel the need to engage in destructive behaviours. To enable you to focus on the positive aspects of your life, it's beneficial to set up habits that allow you to see the positive things you do. For example, going for a ten-minute walk or having a green juice every day. Another tip is to focus your attention away from yourself and onto others by volunteering or helping someone out.

If you, or someone you know, engage in a self-destructive behaviour you feel unable to control, or that has serious side-effects, seeking help from a professional therapist is recommended. For example, if someone is inflicting self-harm, dating physically violent people, or using drugs, they should see a professional therapist as soon as possible. You can also call various hotlines if in need of immediate assistance.

Even if a behaviour is not considered dangerous, if you feel it impacts your life negatively, it is always good to seek out professional help.

Maria Montgomery

Maria Montgomery

Maria has lived in seven different countries around the globe. While trained as an actor, director and producer, mainly she’s been paid for putting her words to pieces of paper. She also has an entrepreneurial streak and is the owner of Magique and That Woman Is A Woman Productions. Her blog, Confessions of a Dizzy Blonde, offers her life learnings, sprinkled with a large dose of humour…and sex!