Can You Get Ptsd From Bullying? PTSD Symptoms To Watch For

Medically reviewed by April Brewer
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Bullying is a serious type of interpersonal aggression that can lead to an increased risk for psychological, psychosomatic, and physical outcomes for those who experience it. Research shows that bullying behavior is a prevalent traumatic stressor in the workplace and in school, and those affected may experience PTSD symptoms similar to people who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). College students who have faced bullying, for instance, may struggle with anxiety, low self esteem, panic attacks, and difficulty forming meaningful relationships.

There is a global effort to cultivate awareness about the devastating epidemic of bullying, including the rise of online bullying and provide solutions to this negative behavior. In honor of PTSD awareness month, we wanted to spread awareness about experiencing PTSD from bullying in the past. In this article, we explore the connection between bullying and PTSD and identify strategies like bullying prevention and trauma-informed care to prevent and treat the effects.

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What is PTSD?

Because many anti-bullying efforts, supported by federal laws, focus on stopping these events as they occur, the medical community is particularly concerned about bullying's immediate effects. Other research helps us understand how individuals cope with bullying in school or workplace bullying environments by developing coping skills. However, long-term consequences resulting from bullying and the potential for survivors to develop PTSD or other mental illness are not as heavily researched. Before exploring how bullying can lead to a trauma response, it is crucial to answer the question: What is PTSD?

Feeling a range of emotions (like fear and anger) after a traumatic event is natural. While people may experience these reactions for some time, eventually, these feelings subside. However, in some cases, someone may continue to experience characteristic symptoms and may be diagnosed with PTSD, an anxiety disorder.

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a mental health disorder that affects individuals who have either witnessed or experienced a serious traumatic event or a series of traumatic events over time. It can emerge from various situations, including violent behavior, physical abuse, or being in immediate danger. Creating a safe and supportive environment can help reduce the risk of developing PTSD and promote overall well-being.

While a person with the disorder may no longer be experiencing the situation that led to the development of the disorder, they can still feel as though they are experiencing it in real-time rather than as a memory. It can cause extreme emotional pain, physical illness, an anxiety disorder, and extreme fear.

Symptoms of PTSD

While there are different levels of severity of PTSD, symptoms of this disorder in adults will often include:

  • Intrusive thoughts that may come without warning. For example, those with PTSD may have realistic and repeated memories, dreams, or flashbacks of the event that are not brought on by trying to remember the event. Some individuals often describe these involuntary flashbacks and thoughts as so vivid that it feels like they are going through the event again and again.
  • Individuals who have PTSD will often try to avoid anything that reminds them of the event(s) that they went through. They will often stay away from certain people, places, things, activities, and situations that are either directly connected to the original event or closely resemble it. They will also try to suppress the event and will avoid thinking or talking about it as much as they can.
  • PTSD will often present itself in ways that mimic symptoms of depression. Those who have gone through a traumatic event and who have developed the disorder may feel negative about their self-image, angry, fearful, guilty, shameful, detached, and may have distorted thoughts and feelings about oneself or others and may also not enjoy activities they previously enjoyed.
  • People with PTSD may have arousal or reactive symptoms, which means they may feel as though they are on high alert or will react to triggers. This may include being angry or irritable, having outbursts, engaging in dangerous and self-destructive behavior, becoming easily startled by certain things, and having trouble focusing or sleeping.

These symptoms will often be felt in the days immediately following the event. To be diagnosed, however, the symptoms listed above must last for a month and continue for months or years onward. Ongoing symptoms will typically develop three months after the initial events. Keep in mind that children and adults may experience the disorder differently.

Bullying and subsequent PTSD: Who is at risk?

The mental health consequences of bullying have been extensively studied. Research shows that children or adults who are bullied are at higher risk of developing mental health disorders (such as depression, eating disorders, or anxiety disorders) and a significantly higher risk for suicide.* There are also additional symptoms associated with bullying, such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Unexplainable aches and pains 
  • Fatigue
  • Cardiovascular problems
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Researchers have found that after bullying events have taken place – even after the bullying stops – both children and adults are at risk of developing PTSD. 

While we have already covered the common PTSD symptoms among adults, PTSD tends to manifest differently in children. For this reason, it is important to be able to identify childhood PTSD or adolescent PTSD if it occurs as the result of bullying.

The latest evidence-based research defines bullying as a systematic form of oppression and an experience of continued negative reinforcement by social peers, whether in work or school environments. Bullying can also happen online.

Symptoms of PTSD in children and adolescents

Children aged five to 12 will often not exhibit the same kinds of behaviors or symptoms as do adults when being repeatedly bullied. In fact, they usually will not experience any flashbacks of their trauma or have difficulty recalling the situations that led to PTSD (two common traits of the disorder often seen in adults). Instead, children in this age bracket may show the following symptoms: 

  • Remembering the events in the wrong order (chronologically)
  • Believing that there were signs leading up to the bullying
  • Develop hypervigilance because of the events that occurred
  • Exhibit behavior such as reliving their trauma by playing with their toys or expressing themselves creatively to cope with and process their emotions and feelings about the situation
  • Make extreme efforts to prevent bullying, such as cutting off meaningful relationships, refusing to go to school, or acting out with aggressive behavior.

Meanwhile, adolescents aged 12 to 18 will often start to take on more behaviors commonly seen in PTSD. For example, teens who have PTSD may have recurring nightmares, upsetting memories or thoughts, and experience flashbacks or other severe feelings because of the bullying event. However, unlike adults, those in this age group may engage in impulsive or reckless behaviors to channel their feelings. 

Adolescent psychiatry has shown that teens may not be able to properly identify or manage their emotions and will internalize feelings and keep them hidden rather than seeking the help of an adult. This bottling up of emotions can result in self-harm, violent behavior, or substance abuse that seems “out of character” to a parent or coach. Because they are younger and are dealing with the complications of daily life and social situations, adolescents are at an increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges that often stem from bullying. For these reasons, trauma-informed care is extremely important for teens experiencing characteristic symptoms of PTSD. 

What to do if you have PTSD from bullying

People who have had a traumatic bullying experience is at an increased risk of developing PTSD. While symptoms may subside with time, the harmful side effects that contributed to the disorder are still present and should be treated. Treatment helps an individual to heal from their experiences and move on to lead a life of confidence, happiness, and peace. If you or a loved one has experience bullying, consider seeking a safe and supportive environment where you can get professional medical advice about the traumatic experiences.

If you are wondering where to start,  seek the help of someone who is qualified to diagnose and treat mental health disorders and who can provide you with the proper resources that will allow you to overcome them successfully. If your child is living with PTSD, this is even more important as it has the potential to dictate how they spend their current and future lives.

Treatment options

Finding the right counselor can be difficult. You may not have one near or are unable to find the time to get help in person. Fortunately, online counseling is growing in both popularity and availability and is a convenient option.

Research shows that internet-based talk therapy can yield positive results. For example, the Journal of Anxiety Disorders published a study that found that online therapy is a useful option for people with PTSD and more efficient than face-to-face treatment. Web-based therapy can still maintain the important therapeutic relationship found in more traditional therapy treatment settings, which means you will still can develop a strong connection with your counselor.

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Find professional support after being bullied

Consider working with a BetterHelp therapist who specializes in trauma and recovery. The professional counselors at BetterHelp can provide ongoing daily support via email, chat, or video conferencing, allowing you to select the best format for you. The site also offers numerous sources of helpful information about common mental illness disorders and articles discussing how to cope with stress, difficult people, and challenging situations. Here is a look at what others had to say about the assistance they received from the counselors at BetterHelp.

Reviews

“She's the first counselor who's allowed me to both weep and get upset with when we're tackling difficult and painful memories from my childhood. It's honestly refreshing, and very welcomed.”

“Tina was able to diagnose my PTSD pretty soon after starting our sessions and helped me process a lot of unresolved childhood trauma.”

Taking the first step is easy. Visit BetterHelp today to begin your personal healing journey!

Takeaway

Once an individual reaches adulthood, the consequences of bullying may be easier to acknowledge and handle, but the underlying self-esteem issues and other psychological symptoms may still be present. Furthermore, some adults may have other disabilities or mental health conditions that are still subject to bullying behavior from other adults. Bullying behaviors can also evolve throughout one's life and adults may encounter different types of bullying or more severe bullying events. All these factors can and will often produce different consequences and should be kept in mind.

*If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is available 24/7. Call your 988, your healthcare provider, go to the emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK

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