How harmful thought patterns about workplace bullying and mobbing may accelerate the aging process

In a piece for Ideas.Ted.com (link here), Elizabeth Blackburn (Salk Institute) and Elissa Epel (UC-San Francisco Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center) explain how our negative thoughts can expedite the aging process. Blackburn, a physician and Nobel Prize recipient, and Epel, a psychologist, are co-authors of The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (2017).

I’m going to cut & paste a bit of brain science from Drs. Blackburn and Epel to explain the role of telomeres in influencing the aging process:

Deep within the genetic heart of all our cells are telomeres, or repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of the chromosomes. They form caps at the ends of the chromosomes and keep the genetic material from unraveling. Shortening with each cell division, they help determine how fast a cell ages. When they become too short, the cell stops dividing altogether. This isn’t the only reason a cell can become senescent — there are other stresses on cells we don’t yet understand very well — but short telomeres are one of the major reasons human cells grow old.

In essence, longer telomeres are good, and shorter telomeres are bad, at least if we care about aging. Blackburn and Epel then identify five thought patterns that lead to the shortening of telomeres:

  • “Scientists have learned that several thought patterns appear to be unhealthy for telomeres, and one of them is cynical hostility.”
  • “Pessimism is the second thought pattern that has been shown to have negative effects on telomeres.”
  • “Rumination — the act of rehashing problems over and over — is the third destructive thought pattern.”
  • “The fourth thought pattern is thought suppression, the attempt to push away unwanted thoughts and feelings.”
  • “The final thought pattern is mind wandering.”

Their full article goes into greater depth about the negative dynamics of each of these thought patterns. They also sum up the cumulative impact:

The negative thought patterns we’ve described are automatic, exaggerated and controlling.They take over your mind; it’s as if they tie a blindfold around your brain so you can’t see what is really going on around you.

Application to targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

All of the five thought patterns examined by Blackburn and Epel are relevant to the experiences of workplace bullying and mobbing. The first three — cynical hostility, pessimism, and rumination — are especially applicable to so many who have experienced severe work abuse.

Among other things, I’ve written about “(r)umination, obsession, and the challenge of getting ‘unstuck'” (link here) when dealing with bullying and mobbing at work. I’ve also written about what Caroline Myss calls “woundology,” referring to “good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds” (link here).

The good news (and it’s real)

The good news is that we know a lot more about how to treat trauma and promote healing. Blackburn and Epel discuss better thought awareness as one way toward dealing with these negative thought patterns. They cite research showing that telomeres can actually lengthen and posit that aging can be slowed or even reversed.

Furthermore, as I’ve discussed earlier, post-traumatic growth (link here) and healing-centered engagement (link here) are real processes that are changing the ways in which we look at possibilities for healing from trauma.

But it must come from within

In a piece for Thought Catalog (link here), self-help writer Brianna Wiest asserts that although trauma is not the victim’s fault, healing from it is their responsibility. Here are some of her reasons:

  • “Healing is our responsibility because if it isn’t, an unfair circumstance becomes an unlived life.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because unprocessed pain gets transferred to everyone around us, and we are not going to allow what someone else did to us to become what we do to those we love.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have this one life, this single shot to do something important.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because if we want our lives to be different, sitting and waiting for someone else to make them so will not actually change them. It will only make us dependent and bitter.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have the power to heal ourselves, even if we have previously been led to believe we don’t.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because ‘healing’ is actually not returning to how and who we were before, it is becoming someone we have never been — someone stronger, someone wiser, someone kinder.”

I’m a bit uncomfortable about using the term “responsibility” in this context. It has a slightly finger-wagging, judgmental connotation to it. And yet, the underlying assumptions are true: Healing from trauma is possible only when the person who has experienced it is ready to work toward it. And when someone reaches that point, good things can happen.

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