Understanding the bullied brain

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.

Much more

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.

21 responses

  1. One of the MOST insidious aspects of workplace bullying involves what my experience and research calls, (MRB) management remote bullying. In this scenario there is a department manager who is a bully that perpetrates, operates and intimidates a target through another employee who is also a bully.

    This particular manifestation of bullying I believe is different from “corporate bullying” and “mobbing” because the “true bully” (director) is calculated to be “hidden”.

    In the absence of any federal protection and definition bullies also bring various discriminatory biases to the workplace. For example, this department director hires a female for a position. This employee is well qualified and receives excellent performance reviews until she spurns the advances of the department director. The female employee puts HR on notice of her concerns about the director. (protected activity)

    Several weeks later the female employee is exposed to some of the classic bullying tactics by a co-worker like falsely accusing the target of workplace mistakes, the silent treatment,
    yells at the target with the intent to intimidate, trivializes the targets work product,
    demeans the target in front of others,etc.

    Why is this happening? The co-worker bully has been recruited by the director bully by remote control. This scenario also involves what I call “workplace conspiracy” where two or more parties (managers,HR,owners,co-workers,vendors,customers) work together to take adverse action against an employee or manager.

    The director bully oprating through another bully has a layer of “protection” from direct accusation of bullying or retaliation. I have experienced this trend and my research shows it to be on the increase. Until Congress acts to protect career seekers and employees from workplace bullying, every one involved in the workplace should learn all they can about workplace bullying and their Basic Employee Rights!

    • Absolutely could not agree more with this comment. You have indeed articulated part of my own story.
      Once you make an official report you become too hot to handle and must be neutralised. Sounds very ‘cloak & dagger’ doesn’t it, well it is. Scientific investigation into the long term psychological affects of workplace bullying is new a new phenomena but has waited patiently for recognition. Tomes have been written in fact on the subject and I agree that it is essential to make the connection between workplace abuse and the burgeoning incidence of ongoing serious mental health issues. Workplace abuse injury costs the Australian economy between $6b and $13b annually and “bullycide” is at epidemic proportions. The laws must be changed to reflect this devastation and bring accountability and culpability onto abusers and facilitators.
      Governments should not have to pay for the injuries caused by deliberate dangerous psychological, enmotional, sexual and physical abuse. But, until the law recognises the misconduct and the devastating consequences and forces perpetrators to cover the damages, including punitive, then governments must continue to pay. In Australia, these abuses are clearly covered, already, under our Crimes Act but the laws have never been invoked, not ever. Nor will they be while big business holds the reins. Dianne Wilkinson

    • important also to note that these bully groups many times don’t have just one target but multiple targets within the same workplace- that is one potential strength for targets – if they can find a way to coalesce and buttress each other.

      • You have hit on the ultimate defense against bullying in the workplace – concerted action. It really does work if the targets can be enabled to work together.

      • I have experienced a comming together of bully victims against a bully privetely in a past workplace, such a wonderful thing to see! Although the bully’s boss has not recognised that any bullying was going on, the manager of the the group of victims has decided not to work with the bully’s employer again and the bully has lost a very valuable contract which will cost them thousands upon thousands of ££.
        What puzzles me is, that despite of this, the bully is still employed and probably bullying other people.

    • I have enjoyed the wonders of adhd since the 60’s when it was referred to simply as “moron.” An un-welcome yet gifted disibility-bullying has introduced itself many times, various ways – upfront in your face sort of thing, and at the professional level-behind close doors, sabotage, humiliation subtle but effective, we have grown.

    • I am undergoing this (MRB) right now. Thanks for taking the time to spell this out. Until now I hadn’t come across it well articulated.

      • I am experiencing this at work, too. Only they make me feel as if I’m the bad apple and bully. Its scary and I am seeing a counselor next week for general anxiety disorder.Plus I handed in my notice, don’t know where I’ll find another job at this time, tho. This is the 2nd time I’ve been bullied.

  2. this might be a disturbing turn rather than a good one: employers might seek to find out if employee targets claimed being bullied as a child, by their parents or at school etc and then the employer will claim the target is predisposed to the condition or an enabler/co dependent and therefore seeks out bullies and creates bully situations. this actually happened to a co worker who went to the employee on site counseling service–so it is not far fetched.

  3. (forgot to also say) hopefully parents of children who are targets at school receive counseling on the potential trajectory–that they are told that the child may be predisposed for future problems in the workplace etc.

    • Don’t stress, we’ve already got that covered in Australia. The bar has been raised to make it almost impossible to bring a case against an employer and qualify for compensation or even the most basic assistance for ongoing and costly psychiatric, medical and pharmaceutical expenses.
      It has become the practice, here, to ruthlessly investigate the history of the victim and focus on any past event or condition that could be determined as an indication of existing mental illness. That the employee actually brought the problem to the workplace with them and that their inability to cope resulted in the further injury.
      And, while it is reasonable to cover all bases, so to speak. It has become a preoccupation of assessors to assign blame away from employers. I can even cite a case where the injured employee, having been diagnosed with anxiety and deep depression and PTSD was ultimately told she was bipolar and the entire state of health was due to some prior anxiety issues earlier in life. This woman has been completely rejected by the system and over a decade of loyal, honest and hardworking service to her employer have been wiped from the record and her integrity shattered. The aim in my country is more about discrediting claimants than addressing the issue at its core. At the risk of sounding arrogant, what I have stated cannot be disputed. It is the cruel fact of life.

      I must add, as a footnote, that no such inquisition is ever made into the psyche of the perpetrators.

      • if parents are informed of the potential future negative impact on career this may make them either

        less inclined to come out of the shadows and label it as bullying and so the child and parent don’t report or don’t identify it as bullying


        it may make parents look at bullying in their own workplace, closely look at the impact on children and sensitize the population to bullying which would be a big win.

  4. As a psychotherapist I have to agree that childhood traumas are being replayed in workplaces. It is the more important that victims of bullying seek counselling or therapy to get rid of those negative messages that they received and instead receive permission to feel that they are ok, valid an respected individuals.

  5. Forgot to mention that I have recently blogged on the importance of protecting the inner child within us. It is usually the first one to suffer when we are being bullied, more so if this has happened in the past.

  6. Pingback: The developing human brain and bullying

  7. At first blush you may consider what I am going to share as being off point. To the contrary. I feel this is a topic which needs to be addressed sooner than later. Those who are no longer in workplaces because of retirement are facing these same types of problems, especially in age-restricted communities, a/k/a retirement communities. When the bully or mob are allowed to take control of people’s lives in these communities, health suffers leading to severe consequences.

    To date, I am unable to find this topic of senior bullying or peer bullying addressed in a treatise or other meaningful research. In the United States, retirees flock to the warm climate states intending to enjoy the remainder of their lives with others of like interests and ages. Unfortunately, far too often people encounter social bullying, mobbing, harassment, whisper campaigns, blatant and aggressive behavior often perpetrated by those on homeowner association boards,

    Intimidation and control seem to be the mainstay and as we age our ability to withstand abuse results in serious health conditions, including diabetes, muscle weakness, lack of agility due to stress. Fear raises cortisol production and the domino effect is catastrophic.

    The neuro-biology of bullying has been recognized and identified. That is not enough, however. Medical practitioners, primary care physicians, legal scholars, judges, legislatures all need to be educated, and the public educated. Unless and until a concerted effort to eradicate bullying people will continue to suffer dire consequences, and the quality of life will be forever diminished.

    • Actually it’s not that far off the point. More attention is being devoted to bullying in other contexts, including seniors. The research may not have caught up with that in the areas of school, cyber, and workplace bullying, but it’s a significant enough problem that we’ll be seeing more of it in the years to come.

  8. These articles are very helpful. I am growing a specialty in psychotherapy for workplace abuse targets, and wish I knew more specialists in my area.

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