Science writer Emily Anthes, in an excellent feature for the Sunday Boston Globe (link here), summarizes the latest neuroscience research showing how bullied kids can suffer from lasting brain damage:
A new wave of research into bullying’s effects, however, is now suggesting something more than that — that in fact, bullying can leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it is still growing and developing. Being ostracized by one’s peers, it seems, can throw adolescent hormones even further out of whack, lead to reduced connectivity in the brain, and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.
This damage, Anthes reports, is very similar to the enduring effects of severe childhood physical and sexual abuse. In essence, it goes way beyond kids stuff:
What the scientists found was that kids who had been bullied reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders than the kids who hadn’t. In fact, emotional abuse from peers turned out to be as damaging to mental health as emotional abuse from parents.
And into the workplace
In another important Globe piece today (link here), reporter Jenna Russell profiles one-time school bullying target Anthony Testaverde, age 29, an honor roll student who was taunted repeatedly about his spinal deformity and avoided college largely out of fear of being bullied again. The experience has followed him to the point of impacting his ability to earn a living and build a career:
Deeply self-critical and preoccupied with what others think of him, he said he cannot be at ease in large groups and has found it hard to stay at one job, because even minor workplace conflicts trigger fears and the urge to flee.
Russell’s summary of the long-term effects of childhood bullying, drawn from personal accounts collected by the Globe, sounds an awful lot like a description of PTSD:
Common threads run through their stories: the spotlit vividness of the memories. The anger at their own failure to fight back or get revenge. A sense of lingering impairment, felt again and again in flare-ups of self-doubt, anxiety, or rage.
Neuroscience and workplace bullying
This research is extremely pertinent to workplace bullying. First, it explains how individuals bullied as kids may be more prone to experience even milder forms of workplace aggression as bullying.
Second, it leads the way for deeper understanding of the destructiveness of workplace bullying. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute (see his blog post, here) and researchers in the field of occupational health psychology have been citing neuroscience research demonstrating the post traumatic effects of severe workplace bullying.
For those of us drafting and advocating for workplace bullying laws, this work helps to make our case. That’s why I was delighted that at a conference on workplace bullying and the law at the University of Augsburg last spring (brief summary here), Prof. Lea Vaughn of the University of Washington School of Law presented on how neuroscience might inform the anti-bullying law reform movement.
This is cutting-edge work, and we are just starting to scratch the surface of it. Suffice it to say that it has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the damage caused by psychological abuse across the lifespan. I’ll be revisiting this topic in future posts, but I especially wanted to share the Anthes and Russell articles with readers now.