The Effects of Bullying in Adulthood

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The Effects of Bullying in Adulthood

Jim Windell

           If you weren’t bullied yourself in middle school or high school, you probably knew someone who was. And if you have children, you may have had to offer support and guidance to a son or daughter who experienced bullying at school.

           While statistics suggest one in three kids are bullied at school, today bullying takes new forms as it can occur in social media just as often as it does in the hallways at school. In general, though, bullying hasn’t changed much in the last few hundred years, usually taking the firm of name-calling, spreading malicious rumors, belittling and even physical abuse.

           Some of us grew up at times when bullying was ignored or simply accepted as an inevitable aspect of being around our peers.   

           But we know that it should neither be ignored or accepted because research shows that bullying is corrosive to children’s mental health and well-being. The consequences of bullying can range from trouble sleeping and skipping school to psychiatric problems, such as depression or psychosis, self-harm, and suicide.

           However, the damage that bullying leaves in its wake is just not confined to middle school or high school. There is often a lasting effect that follows some people into adulthood. So says Ellen Walser deLara, a family therapist and professor of social work at Syracuse University. She has interviewed more than 800 people between ages 18 to 65 about the ongoing effects of bullying. Because deLara has seen a distinctive pattern emerge in adults who were intensely bullied, in her 2106 book, Bullying Scars, she introduced a name for the set of symptoms she often encounters: adult post-bullying syndrome, or APBS.

           When evaluating the experiences of the hundreds of people she has interviewed and gauged the lasting effects of bullying, deLara estimates that more than a third of the adults she’s spoken to who were bullied have this syndrome. She stresses that APBS is a description, not a diagnosis – and she isn’t seeking to have APBS classified as a psychiatric disorder. “It needs considerably more research and other researchers to look at it to make sure that this is what we’re seeing,” deLara says.

           But deLara’s research indicates that years after being mistreated, people with adult post-bullying syndrome commonly struggle with trust and self-esteem or develop psychiatric problems. Some people experiencing APBS become people-pleasers, or rely on food, alcohol, or drugs to cope.

DeLara says that in some respects, APBS is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in which people who have had terrifying experiences develop an impaired fight-or-flight response. Both APBS and PTSD can lead to lasting anger or anxiety, substance abuse, battered self-esteem, and relationship problems. “Those with PTSD have internalized their trauma such that it has affected their nervous system,” deLara says. “People with PTSD react immediately because their triggers are basically telling them they need to protect themselves against harm.” Those with APBS seem to have a longer fuse; the damage comes not in an outsized reaction but instead because they ruminate on what happened.

           DeLara observed another distinction between sufferers of PTSD and those with APBS: Sometimes, having been bullied seems to have positive outcomes.

            About 47 percent of deLara’s interviewees said they had gleaned something beneficial, like a sense of inner strength or self-reliance, from the experience. Others cultivated empathy or consciously decided to treat others well or make something of their lives. Almost everyone she talked to with APBS could identify at least one benefit from having been bullied.

           The damage brought about by bullying, of course, outweighs any benefits. “Because people can make lemonade out of lemons, it doesn’t mean that bullying is a good thing,” deLara says. Even those who are able to see the positive side of having been bullied often had other negative ramifications.

             For people with APBS, deLara recommends family and cognitive behavioral therapies, particularly those focused on trauma.  But, deLara hopes that by giving a name to the lasting effects, APBS, it will make it easier for people to find effective treatment.

           To read the article from which this blog is adapted, find it here:

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