How Bullying Causes PTSD and Trauma

by | Feb 15, 2020 | Anxiety, Panic Attacks, PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), Stress


Nearly all of us have experienced bullying in some form at some point in our lives. In today’s blog we explore the effects of bullying and the trauma surrounding it, Bullying can cause traumatic experiences, leading to PTSD and have a far-reaching effect on our lives. Find out how this happens, what can we do about the trauma and whether we can prevent it happening. 


What is bullying? 


First of all, what is bullying? According to Psychology Today, ‘Bullying is a distinctive pattern of harming and humiliating others… it is a deliberate and repeated attempt to cause harm to others of lesser power.’  

The target for a bully is rarely random. Victims are usually singled-out as having a lack of assertiveness and radiating fear and are often alone. We all instinctively read each other’s body language and unconsciously note how threatening or unthreatening someone’s behaviour is. Consequently, a bully can home in on someone who exhibits a lack of self-confidence.  However, bullies are made not born. Bullying itself is a pattern of behaviour that has been learned to deal with experiences that the bully has been through. It may have been learned from family that bullied them, and this may be a defence that has been put in place. 

In a similar way to how the bully has developed a pattern that results in bullying, someone who is bullied will also develop a pattern to cope with it. Sadly, this pattern can actually end up attracting future bullies and here is the reason why.  


Patterns in the brain 


Everything that we know and do is a pattern. So, we have a pattern of how to get dressed, clean our teeth, tie our shoelaces, etc. And these patterns save us time and vast amounts of energy. This is because once we have established a pattern of how to do something, we can perform it automatically. Therefore we no longer have to think about them.

So for example, if we have experienced our care givers or elders being bullied that gets stored away in our brain as a normal pattern, a bit like a blueprint. These blueprints or templates are our building blocks to life. And if our template tells us that it is ok to be subservient and not stick up for ourselves, then that is exactly what we’ll do, because we don’t have any other patterns to use.  And because we are pattern-matching animals, if we have experienced something enough our brains think that it is normal. 

We learn patterns from all of our own experiences. If we are bullied at some point, our brain will store that experience away as a trauma, and it is likely to use that as a pattern that it will look out for in the future. This can mean that if we recognise a similar situation we can find ourselves behaving in the same way. If that behaviour was to put up with it, then we are likely to do the same again in this new situation. 


Effects of bullying 


The effects of bullying can go beyond what you might feel at the time, which can be embarrassed, humiliated, afraid, angry or why me? Whether the bullying lasted for years or whether it was just a one off, the effects can cause damage for the rest of your life in some cases. Bullying ranges from verbal bulling; name calling and unkind remarks, to physical bullying; from being pushed in the playground to violent attacks and sexual harassment. It can also take the form of exclusion, where someone is ignored. Today cyber-bullying is a huge issue with bullies often having access to their victims 24/7 on various social media platforms. Victims in the younger generation often feel they don’t ever get a break from it and that there is no escape.

The effect of all bullying is that it can leave us in a state of fear. That fear locks us in a place where we will do anything to not feel all the emotions again that we felt when being bullied before. Additionally, we feel shame and this makes it hard for people to talk about what’s happening to them. 

Changes in behaviour

As previously mentioned, the patterns that we lay down from earlier bullying can then modify our behaviour in an attempt to avoid it happening again. This can lead to social anxiety, which maybe stopping you from doing something that you always have wanted to do. We can develop avoidance tactics, avoiding situation that remind us of a previous experience when we were bullied. This can be enough to stop us doing some of the things that give our life pleasure. Maybe you belonged to a group or a sports team but now avoid going out of fear. When this happens our lives begin to get smaller and smaller. This in itself is enough to bring about anxiety and low mood, and if our low mood continues, depression can follow.


How does bullying cause PTSD? 


Our brain has an emotional part, the limbic system, that is dedicated to keeping us safe. Part of this system, the amygdala, constantly monitors our environment and compares all this information to any stored patterns. When we experience a trauma, such as bullying, we automatically store all the elements from this away in our brains. If the amygdala matches a current situation to a previously stored ‘dangerous’ situation, then it will instantly trigger a state of fight or flight to cope with the new situation and keep us safe. This heightened emotional state can create strong feelings of anxiety, cause flashbacks, dark and reoccurring thoughts or a feeling of being numb and disconnected. When this happens we are experiencing a traumatic memory or, in more severe cases, PTSD. 

In our downloadable resource here, we explore more fully about how the brain processes trauma and PTSD. 


Attracting bullies 


Have you been bullied in more than one completely separate situation? This is an unfortunate aspect of our trauma pattern storage. It is likely that having suffered one experience of bullying, that it may lead to you exhibiting behaviour that makes you a target of future bullies. One reason for this is that we are constantly running automatic behaviour patterns as a result of our experiences, and this can make us perhaps behave in a subservient way. Put simply, we may simply not have a pattern for standing up for ourselves. In addition as we have said the bully naturally identifies someone who shows that they will not challenge them, and they pick this up through our body language. If we are feeling defeated, humiliated or weak this will show in our posture and can attract bullies to us. 


Protecting ourselves through our body language


Think about someone you know who is confident and brave. What do they walk like? How do they stand?  How do you stand or walk? Does your walk or posture invite bullying. Amy Cuddy, renowned American social psychologist has proposed that ‘Power Poses’ can not only convey a more powerful image, but can actually change the way we feel ourselves. It has been considered controversial but has recently been validated by a further scientific study

You can view her Ted Talk on Power Poses and how to fake it till you make it here 

Adults can help to ‘bully-proof’ their kids by demonstrating assertiveness at home. Also they can help by regularly asking how their friends treat them, making sure that children know that they can talk about being bullied and not feel ashamed. 

However, if you feel that you are repeatedly being bullied, it may be an idea to get some help to remove unhelpful patterns of behaviour.


Getting help 


Sometimes we need some extra help. If you have experiences of being bullied and it’s affecting your life, or if you have found yourself being bullied repeatedly, it might be a good idea to get some help. Trauma counselling can help you to remove the patterns and gain the emotional resilience to be more confident and avoid bullying in the future. Along with exhibiting more powerful body language, you will be able to move forward without the ghosts of the past affecting your future. 

In conclusion, all of our experiences can affect our behaviour and affect the way we present ourselves to the outside world. But with some help dealing with past patterns we can change our lives for the better. 

Thanks for reading. This is the second blog in our series of articles about PTSD and traumatic experiences and I hope you found it helpful. Why not head over to our website for loads more information and useful downloads. And if you know someone who would find this information helpful then please share it.  

Wishing you all the very best,





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