Bullying is commonly attributed to kids on the playground, but for many people, the invisible wounds from childhood bullying are felt for years and even decades afterward. Bullying itself takes many forms: classmates who constantly tease a “weaker” child online or in-person; a boss who uses her power to make employees feel small; an over-domineering partner in a romantic relationship.
While many of these actions occasionally cross over into even more serious forms of abuse, it’s important for all of us to recognize bullying from the start, and to acknowledge that it can affect victims’ mental health. Here are five signs that bullying is impacting one’s mental health — and tips for how to defend yourself.** Helplessness in a specific person’s presence:** A common experience for victims of bullying is feeling their power to defend themselves or reach out to others for help has been stripped away. When it becomes difficult to set boundaries with someone who is emotionally abusive, or to honestly express how that person’s treatment is affecting you, that’s a sign the relationship is unhealthy and the other person may be a bully — or worse.
_Tip: _ Find an advocate or support to gain clarity on the situation. Feeling helpless can distort your perspective. A friend, co-worker, or spiritual leader might 1) help identify strategies for asserting yourself more effectively or 2) accurately read a situation as dangerous and help you find a way out.
Lowered self-worth: When people are constantly bullied, it can lead to grave doubts about their own self-worth, i.e., that they are not deserving of kindness, compassion, or respect. This sort of self-negation can take a toll on mental health.
Tip: Boosting feelings of self-worth often involves challenging negative thoughts with actions that clearly demonstrate one’s value and dignity. Volunteering or supporting someone else in need can start the process of restoring feelings of worth.
Avoidance of situations where a bully might be present: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 160,000 kids per day do not attend school for fear of being bullied. But avoidance is not limited to children. Adults skip family gatherings or procrastinate before going home from work in order to avoid partners or roommates who constantly ridicule. The effort it takes to avoid situations where bullying is present can detract from other important areas of your life.
Tip: In situations that are potentially physically threatening, avoidance may be a smart decision to maintain safety. When physical safety is not an immediate concern, role playing how to manage those situations that are being avoided can be a small step toward developing the skills that can support navigating difficult situations.
Difficulty concentrating on important tasks. When people have experienced traumatic events, a common coping strategy is to be on high-alert for anything that is threatening. Bullying follows this pattern and can interfere with concentration when an individual is constantly preparing to be bullied, or trying to avoid it. This hyper-alertness can become disruptive to work, school, and relationships.
Tip: One of the ways our bodies respond to threats is by activating our stress-response. When this is over-activated, it can get in the way of our ability to concentrate and think through how to respond in an effective way. Mindfulness practices such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation can become powerful tools to help you still feel in control in a situation where a bully is present. More importantly, those practices can help us 1) focus on the genuinely important details of a situation and 2) make smart decisions about our safety and health.
Thoughts of self-harm because of another’s actions or words. The emotional pain inflicted by a bully is difficult to quantify, but research shows that bullying is a significant predictor of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. When the cumulative pain from feeling demeaned or humiliated sparks thoughts of suicide or self-harm, that is a sign that your mental health has been significantly comprised.
Tip: When these thoughts pop up, the first step is realizing that you are not abnormal. Countless people have these thoughts from time to time, but they can become dangerous when we avoid talking with trusted friends, family members, or professionals about it due to a fear of stigma or through a misguided attempt to “handle it” ourselves. Don’t panic. If you’ve had these thoughts, you can reach out for help from resources like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, for information and support. Do not carry the burden and the pain of bullying alone.
_Bullying exists. But in the end, we defeat bullies when we connect with people who care for us, while learning that our best defense is to love ourselves. _
Dr. Isaiah Pickens is a leading clinical psychologist committed to bringing hope through healthy living using the most compelling, scientifically grounded and entertaining tools in mental health. Whether providing a keynote address, workshop, training, or an answer to a simple question, he is here to help you achieve the best version of yourself. Learn more at www.iOpening Enterprises.com.
Isaiah Pickens, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist committed to bringing the message of hope through healthy living to others in the most compelling, scientifically-grounded, and entertaining ways. Whether providing a keynote address, training, or an answer to a simple question, he is here to help you achieve the best version of yourself. Learn more at iOpening Enterprises. He loves hiking and bikes and is “kind of a sci-fi junky.” Find him on Twitter and Instagram @PickensPoints.