Can Bullying Cause Anxiety Disorders?

Childhood bullying can be a form of anxiety and trauma that carries over into later life and adulthood, often showing up as generalised or social anxiety, and/or lead to PTSD and panic attacks. The pain and distress victims experience impacts almost every aspect of their lives leaving them feeling lonely, isolated, vulnerable, and anxious.

Bullying is victimising, shaming and humiliating, and a hurtful way to make someone feel rejected. When someone is bullied, they become ostracized, dismissed and isolated, and often go on to develop feelings of unworthiness, guilt and inadequacy. Bullying can be a combination of emotional or physical abuse and it is not uncommon for someone who has been bullied as a child, to continue to be bullied long after their school days are over.

From an evolutionary perspective, we are wired to attach and belong to a tribe. Our tribe would look out for us and keep us safe. It was not possible to hunt for food and keep a fire going continuously without the support of others in your tribe. Being ostracised was likely to lead to death.

Without an attachment to a tribe, our sense of belonging would be lost which can feel extremely scary, even in today’s modern world. The nervous system activates the survival mechanisms of fight and flight when the emotions experienced are shame and hopelessness.

Bullying involves an imbalance of power between perpetrators and victims, where one perpetrator engages in physical or emotional abuse, and the victim is not able to defend themselves.

The most common anxiety disorders that may develop as a result of being bullied are:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Panic Attacks or Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Anxiety becomes a disorder if you are feeling intensely worried or fearful the majority of the time, and for an extended period of time. This is the most common form of anxiety and someone suffering with GAD may be inundated with worries and fears that distract them from their everyday lives. Anxiety can then have an impact on relationships, the ability to go to school or hold down employment, energy levels, concentration levels and sleep.

As a result of being bullied, you may have a constant dread that something else bad will happen to you. This may have an impact on their behaviour which could possibly make you more vulnerable to future bullying.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety is an overwhelming feeling of intense fear and self-consciousness about being around other people. You may be worried that you will be ridiculed or humiliated or do something or act in a certain way that is embarrassing when in front of others. As a result, you may avoid public places or social gathering as you have an excessive fear of being judged or criticized.

Victims of bullying may develop a social anxiety disorder, especially if you were repeatedly shamed or publicly humiliated, and may believe that the humiliation and embarrassment you experienced previously will happen repeatedly.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD may occur after a particularly traumatic and terrifying event where some physical harm occurred, was witnessed or threatened, or after repeated abuse or bullying. PTSD will often result in flashbacks of past events and nightmares and may cause the sufferer to withdraw from others.

Panic Attacks or Disorders

Someone with a panic disorder will regularly suffer with unprovoked and intense feelings of panic combined with the physical sensations that may include increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness and often chest and/or stomach pain. These feelings of terror can be particularly scary when in the midst of an attack, as it can feel as if we have no control over what is happening to us and we can’t properly take a breath.

When left untreated, panic attacks can lead sufferers to avoid going out or doing things you once enjoyed. You may have a constant worry that you will experience another attack so often choose to stay home where you feel safe

What can you do to overcome the long term effects of bullying?

Firstly, understand that what happened to you was not your fault. Bullies often do what they do because they are struggling with something in their own lives, and they use the power imbalance to feel better about themselves. Bullies are often insecure and trying to fulfil a need for control in their own lives. Forgiving the bully can be a really helpful step in your recovery. If this is a stretch too far, then try and work on acceptance of what has happened to you, without guilt or shame. What skills would have helped you back then? If it was confidence, work on building up your confidence. If is was resilience, how can you build on this?

You may also find it helpful to work out what the coping strategies were that you used when you were younger, and see if you are still applying those same strategies today. Talking to a therapist could help you remove the negative emotions that you stored when you were bullied and help you rewrite your story to remove the ‘victim’ role.
 
You may possibly need to strengthen your social skills if they were not developed sufficiently when you were younger.

If anxiety is something you or your loved ones struggle with regularly, then please get in touch to discuss how I can help you. You can book a FREE 45 minute discovery call here

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