Bullying and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Part 1)

In my continued goal to try to explain and help recovery of the long-term effects from bullying, I have been bypassing an important item that I even have some experience working with: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We have heard much about PTSD in the news, mainly focused on soldiers who return from war. In fact, several times in my career developing online and stand-up training, I have worked on PTSD recovery programs. But, in all the time, I never truly correlated PTSD to the long-term effects of bullying.

I would say this is mainly because it is a term so associated with soldiers and war. In fact, I think as it is brought up in discussion against issues of long-term effects of bullying, another term should be developed specifically for that. I have several times talked about a term I use to explain some of what I have seen, which is the Perceived Threat Syndrome. I have seen and experienced reactions around that concept many times from people who suffer from prolonged bullying.

This article, which begins a series of articles, will start to shed light on the connection between long-term effects of bullying and PTSD. The main goal in discussing this is to help figure out how to receive the correct help and support to recover from these effects. This first article reprints a question and answer posted on CNN in 2009 from a person asking about the connection between PTSD and bullying.

A visitor to the CNN site named Michelle asked Dr. Charles Raison, a Psychiatrist at Emory University Medical School the following:

I suffered long-term verbal abuse and bullying at school for nearly six years. Recently a friend in the mental health field suggested that some behaviors I have begun to exhibit appear to correlate strongly with PTSD. Is it possible to develop PTSD from schoolyard bullying?

Dr. Raison’s answer to this question was:

I feel for you, because I was also bullied growing up, not just at school but in the neighborhood, too. One bully in particular left a lasting impression on me. And not just on me. Recently I saw a childhood friend I hadn’t seen for 30 years, and the first thing he wanted to comment on was how much he still hated, and was haunted by, this particular bully. The bully himself has spent much of his adult life in jail.

So, yes, one can develop PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms around all sorts of traumatic events, not just the classic ones like warfare or rape. For example, many people develop PTSD after motor vehicle accidents or after a stay in a hospital intensive care unit. There are even a couple of studies showing that bullying does indeed increase the risk of PTSD — and that women are twice as likely to develop symptoms as are men subjected to the same traumas. Thus, anything that really shakes a person up, scares her half to death or makes her feel completely vulnerable and out of control can produce PTSD symptoms.

Although I’ve written about PTSD before, let me just remind folks that PTSD symptoms cluster into three large groups.

The first group revolves around re-experiencing the traumatic event, sometimes in the form of flashbacks, sometimes in the form of dreams. The second group is like a mirror image of the first and involves all sorts of attempts to avoid things that remind one of the trauma. This behavior is often linked to growing feelings of social withdrawal and a loss of a sense of being fully alive. The third group of symptoms relates to what has been called hyperarousal, which means an emotional, mental and physical tendency to drive one’s flight-or-flight nervous system too hard, a classic sign of which is a tendency to startle too easily.

If you have some combination of these symptoms, you most likely are struggling with PTSD to at least some degree and would benefit from treatment.

As with psychiatric conditions in general, treatment options tend to be either psychotherapeutic or pharmacological. Researchers still debate the best type of psychotherapy for PTSD; it’s a complicated and fascinating story that is too long to tell here. Even given this, I think you would be helped a great deal by finding a warm and empathic therapist to whom you could share your situation. In addition to PTSD proper, such a therapist would help you recognize and deal with the feelings of anger and shame that almost always come with having been bullied.

I still carry anger and fear toward the bully of my childhood: When I go home, I won’t walk by his parent’s house (where he still lives) out of fear that he’ll come out and hurt me. And I tend to be more stern than I need to be with patients who try to bully others, almost certainly another legacy of my own early experience.

Antidepressants are the best studied and probably most useful agents for treating PTSD. There is no evidence that one brand is better than another, but evidence would suggest that you want to choose one that has serotonin activity, as most new antidepressants do. If your life is really being affected by the trauma of your schoolyard, I strongly recommend you see a specialist who will be better able to decide what mix of therapy and medications are most appropriate, given the details of your situation.

What an honest and refreshing answer Dr. Raison gave. It surprised me to see his honesty about his own bullying. In the end the concept of therapy and antidepressants was his answer. These are decisions that each person needs to work on in conjunction with their therapist and doctors. This is but one take on the connection and help for victims suffering with long-term effects from bullying. I will continue to share other interesting ties that discuss bullying and PTSD in future articles in this series.

Ultimately, I still feel that a different name should be given to this issue for bullying, due to the close ties that PTSD shares with soldiers and war, but as part of a concept for long-term issues, it is an item studied and termed for the same suffering. Please feel free to share articles you find on the subject of PTSD and bullying as comments to this one as the discussion continues.

(question and answer quotes above courtesy of CNN.com)

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About Alan Eisenberg

Alan Eisenberg is a Certified Life Coach, Bullying Recovery activist and author of "A Ladder In The Dark: My journey from bullying to self-acceptance" and "Crossing the Line". He has been writing and speaking to various audiences about the issue of C-PTSD and Bullying Recovery. Mr. Eisenberg has been featured on several print, radio shows and podcasts on this issue, including NPR and in the Boston Globe. He is currently working toward his Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling.
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  1. Pingback: Six common myths about bullying « Education Research Digest

  2. Very good article…being bullied actually causes a form of PTSD called complex PTSD. I am glad to finally see bullying cast in the same light as trauma; Judith Herman, MD Harvard Medica School, is responsible for creating this term. She and Bessel Van Der Kolk-two of the trauma research giants, are responsible for enlightening the world about the prevalence of trauma. There is still rampant misdiagnosis in the psychiatric profession which fails so many victims of trauma. I do hope and believe that soon enough they will revise their work to include school bullying. I recommend reading Herman’s landmark book “Trauma and Recovery.

  3. I think calling the response to bullying PTSD is both accurate and helpful. If we come to understand that PTSD is a normal response to horrible experience, whether at war, or abuse at home or school — perhaps it will be easier to have compassion for the people who suffer from it.

    And perhaps it will begin to seem more important to help people heal from it. If we achieved that, our world would be immeasurably better, would it not?

    Peter A. Levine’s work in this field is incredible. He even has a book out “Trauma Proofing Your Kids”. All his books are amazing, many have detailed paths to self-healing.

  4. I was intensely bullied for about eight to ten years (ages say 6 or 7 to 15). My Dad drank, lost a lot of jobs, we moved a lot, and I was always the new kid in class, sensitive looking (even when fighting I couldn’t hit someone in the face), and just an easy mark for the bully-gang. Finally, at age 19 I tried to kill myself.

    What’s odd is 50 years later I’m having a string of bad luck (lost my job, a lot of health problems, etc) and suddenly I feel like I’m ten, back in my “bully-world.” I can see all the faces tormenting me, threatening to harm and even kill me. (“We were just kidding”)

    I have no idea what to do and am ashamed to even talk about what I am NOW going through. Crazy.

  5. Pingback: Bullying and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Part 3) « Bullying Stories

  6. my 20 year old college sophomore daughter has suffered from deep depression for about 4 years. She has been recieving treatment for depression but after a crisis last week we switched psychatrists and psychologists. They concluded that she has complex PTSD from being bullied. she is s sopophomore in college and a brilliant student but is afraid of people her own age because of her school experiences.
    I thank God that she is now on the right track and the root of the problem is now being addressed.
    I am so FURIOUS at the bullies parents and our school system for this…. BLESS this psychatrist, psychologist, and the teachers at the school who defended and protected my daughter when they saw what was going on…. a POX on this girl, the mother who raised her and the principal of the school for allowing this to go on and on

  7. I was bullied for more years in the workplace than I care to remember.
    Developed Complex PTSD in the later part of it.
    Difficult way to live. Thanks for the site.
    PTSD from bullying has to be acknowleged more
    and I believe it’s going to get worse for people out there.

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