Can You Get Ptsd From Bullying? PTSD Symptoms To Watch For
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.
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.
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:
- Unexplainable aches and pains
- Cardiovascular problems
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.
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.
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.
“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!
*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
Does harassment cause PTSD?
Yes, harassment can be a contributing factor to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in some individuals. Harassment is part of a complicated and devastating epidemic of bullying that may include systemic abuse or workplace harassment, in addition to bullying during childhood or adolescence. While not everyone who experiences harassment will develop PTSD, it is possible for the distressing and traumatic nature of harassment to lead to symptoms of the disorder. Here's how harassment or physical bullying can potentially contribute to developing PTSD symptoms:
- Severity and Frequency: Harassment that is severe, prolonged, or repeated can be particularly distressing and traumatic, increasing the likelihood of developing PTSD.
- Emotional Impact: Harassment can evoke intense fear, helplessness, and horror in victims, which are key elements of trauma that can lead to PTSD.
- Power Imbalance: Harassment often involves a power imbalance, where the victim feels powerless and unable to escape the situation. This sense of powerlessness can contribute to the development of PTSD symptoms.
- Threat to Safety: Harassment can create an ongoing sense of threat and danger, causing individuals to experience heightened arousal, hypervigilance, and other symptoms associated with PTSD.
- Intrusive Thoughts: Victims of harassment may experience intrusive and distressing thoughts related to the harassment, which can contribute to the re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD.
- Avoidance Behaviors: Individuals who have experienced harassment might avoid situations, places, or people that remind them of the harassment, leading to avoidance symptoms characteristic of PTSD.
- Negative Mood and Cognitions: Harassment can lead to negative beliefs about oneself, the world, and others, contributing to the negative alterations in mood and cognitions seen in PTSD.
- Emotional Dysregulation: The emotional toll of harassment can lead to difficulties in regulating emotions, which is a common symptom of PTSD.
If you or someone you know is experiencing bullying, you may want to explore the resources provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Stop Bullying website.
What helps with PTSD triggers?
Managing and coping with PTSD triggers can be challenging, but there are several strategies that can help individuals navigate these difficult moments, intense feelings, and negative emotions. Here are some techniques to consider to overcome bullying trauma:
- Grounding Techniques: Grounding exercises, such as focusing on your senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) or describing your surroundings in detail, can help bring your attention back to the present moment and reduce the intensity of triggers.
- Breathing Exercises: Deep breathing and mindful breathing techniques can help calm the body's stress response and reduce anxiety during trigger episodes.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This technique involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups to release physical tension and promote relaxation.
- Safe Space: Create a mental safe space that you can visualize when triggered. This space should be calming and comforting, serving as a refuge from distressing thoughts and emotions.
- Self-Care: Engage in self-care activities that bring you comfort and relaxation, such as taking a warm bath, practicing yoga, listening to calming music, or spending time in nature.
- Mindfulness and Meditation: Mindfulness practices can help you observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment, reducing the emotional impact of triggers.
- Positive Affirmations: Use positive affirmations to challenge negative beliefs and thoughts triggered by the trauma.
- Crisis Plan: Create a crisis plan that outlines steps to take when triggers become overwhelming. This plan may involve contacting a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional.
- Professional Support: Seek therapy from mental health professionals trained in trauma treatment, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
- Medication: Consult a psychiatrist if medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, might help manage the symptoms of PTSD, including triggers.
Can you live a good life with PTSD?
Yes, it is possible to live a fulfilling and meaningful life despite having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While living with PTSD can present challenges, many individuals with PTSD are able to effectively manage their symptoms and lead satisfying lives. Here's how:
- Treatment and Support: Seeking appropriate treatment, such as therapy and, if necessary, medication, can significantly improve the management of PTSD symptoms. Support from mental health professionals, friends, family, and support groups can provide valuable guidance and understanding while helping you to build a positive perception of yourself.
- Coping Strategies: Learning and implementing coping strategies to manage triggers, anxiety, and stress can help individuals navigate daily life more effectively.
- Self-Care: Prioritizing self-care through exercise, healthy eating, sleep, and relaxation techniques can contribute to overall well-being.
- Routine and Structure: Establishing a structured daily routine can provide a sense of stability and predictability, which can be particularly helpful for managing symptoms.
- Mindfulness and Relaxation: Engaging in mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques can reduce stress and promote emotional regulation.
- Positive Relationships: Cultivating positive and supportive relationships can create a strong network of understanding individuals who can provide emotional support.
- Setting Realistic Goals: Breaking down goals into manageable steps can help create a sense of achievement and build self-esteem.
- Pursuing Passions: Engaging in activities, hobbies, and passions that bring joy and fulfillment can contribute to a higher quality of life.
- Resilience: Many individuals with PTSD develop a deep level of resilience and personal growth as a result of their experiences. This can lead to increased self-awareness, empathy, and strength in their adult lives.
- Recovery Journey: Recognize that recovery from PTSD is a journey, and there may be ups and downs along the way. Celebrate your progress and focus on the progress you make.
The path to living well with PTSD is unique to each individual. While challenges may persist, the goal is not to eliminate all symptoms but to learn effective strategies to manage them and find a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Seeking professional help, building a support network, and practicing self-care can play crucial roles in creating a positive and meaningful life despite the presence of PTSD.
What to do after a PTSD episode?
After experiencing a PTSD episode, it's important to prioritize your well-being and engage in self-care to help you manage the aftermath. Here's what you can do:
- Give Yourself Space: Allow yourself time and space to recover. Find a quiet and safe environment where you can focus on calming your mind and body. If possible, remove yourself from triggers that might have contributed to the episode.
- Practice Grounding Techniques: Grounding exercises can help bring your attention back to the present moment and reduce the intensity of distressing thoughts and emotions. Focus on your senses, such as touching an object, feeling the texture, or listening to soothing sounds.
- Deep Breathing: Practice deep breathing exercises to regulate your breathing and calm your nervous system. Inhale deeply for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for a count of four.
- Engage in Self-Care: Engage in self-soothing activities that promote relaxation and comfort, such as taking a warm bath, listening to calming music, or engaging in a creative hobby.
- Reach Out for Support: If you feel comfortable, talk to a trusted friend, family member, or support person about your experience. They can provide understanding, comfort, and reassurance.
- Reflect: After you've calmed down, reflect on the episode. Consider what triggered it, what helped you cope, and what you might do differently next time.
- Seek Professional Help: If the episode was particularly intense or if you're struggling to manage your symptoms, reach out to a mental health professional who can provide guidance, therapy, and coping strategies tailored to your needs.
Why do PTSD victims get angry?
Anger is a common response to trauma and for people experiencing bullying, anger may serve as a survival mechanism in an attempt to frighten the bully. Children tend to respond to trauma or ongoing intimidation from bullies by acting aggressively. Interpersonal aggression coupled with anger may be a common response to trauma in children and may result in fighting or arguing. Other reasons why PTSD victims may get angry include:
- Loss of control
- Emotional deregulation
- Triggered memories
- Frustration or helplessness
What do PTSD triggers feel like?
PTSD triggers can evoke a range of intense emotional and physical sensations. Triggers are specific reminders of the traumatic event that can cause distressing reactions. When triggered, individuals with PTSD may experience the following:
- Intense Emotions: Triggers can lead to sudden and overwhelming emotions, such as fear, panic, anger, sadness, or anxiety. They may also feel major or mild embarrassment or shame related to their trauma. These emotions can be more intense than the situation warrants.
- Physical Sensations: Triggers can cause physical reactions like rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, and a sensation of being on edge.
- Flashbacks: Triggers may lead to flashbacks, where individuals feel as if they are reliving the traumatic event. This can involve vivid images, sounds, or smells related to the trauma.
- Intrusive Thoughts: Triggered by reminders, intrusive thoughts can flood the mind, making it difficult to focus on the present moment. These thoughts might be distressing, negative, or disturbing.
- Avoidance: In response to triggers, individuals may feel an intense urge to avoid situations, places, people, or conversations that remind them of the trauma.
- Heightened Alertness: Triggers can lead to hypervigilance, where individuals become extremely watchful and easily startled, scanning their environment for threats.
- Somatic Symptoms: In some cases, the body may respond to PTSD physically through pain signals that may cause muscle or joint pain, dizziness, or headaches.
- Emotional Numbing: Some individuals might experience a sense of emotional detachment or numbness as a way to cope with the overwhelming emotions triggered by reminders.
- Anger or Irritability: Triggers can elicit strong feelings of anger or irritability, often as a response to the distress caused by the reminder.
- Feeling Unsafe: Triggers can create a feeling of being unsafe or in danger, even if the situation is not actually threatening.
- Loss of Control: Some individuals might feel a loss of control over their emotions and reactions when triggered, leading to frustration and distress.
Triggers can vary widely among individuals with PTSD and can be unique to their specific trauma. For examples triggers may be different for an individual who has surpassed physical abuse when compared with a soldier who served in a war zone. Learning to identify triggers and developing coping strategies to manage them is an essential part of PTSD treatment and recovery.
Does PTSD ever go away?
While PTSD symptoms can improve and individuals can experience significant recovery, it's important to understand that for many people, PTSD doesn't completely "go away" in the sense of disappearing entirely and individuals may still meet PTSD criteria for diagnosis throughout life. The goal of treatment and coping strategies is to manage and alleviate symptoms, improve functioning, and enhance overall quality of life.
With effective treatment, which often includes complementary therapy methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and medication, many individuals experience a reduction in the intensity and frequency of PTSD symptoms. Some individuals may even achieve a state where their symptoms no longer significantly interfere with their daily lives. However, it's possible that certain triggers or stressors could occasionally cause symptoms to resurface.
The trajectory of recovery varies from person to person. Some people might experience long periods of remission, while others may have occasional flare-ups. The emphasis is on learning how to manage symptoms, develop coping skills, and lead a fulfilling life despite the presence of PTSD.
What is the fastest way to calm PTSD?
The fastest way to calm PTSD symptoms may vary from person to person, but here are a few techniques that can provide immediate relief:
- Deep Breathing: Take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. This can help regulate your nervous system and reduce anxiety.
- Grounding Techniques: Focus on the present moment by using your senses. Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Tense and then release each muscle group in your body, starting from your toes and working your way up. This can help alleviate physical tension and promote relaxation.
- Mindfulness: Engage in mindfulness techniques, such as focusing on your breath or observing your thoughts without judgment. This can help redirect your attention away from distressing memories.
- Safe Space Visualization: Mentally visualize a safe and calming place where you can retreat to in your mind. Imagine the sights, sounds, and sensations of this space.
- Use a Grounding Object: Hold onto an object that feels comforting or calming. Pay attention to its texture, weight, and temperature.
- Listen to Soothing Music: Play music that helps you relax and soothe your emotions.
These techniques can provide immediate relief, but long-term management of PTSD typically involves professional help, therapy, medication, and self-care practices. If you're struggling with PTSD symptoms, consider seeking guidance from a mental health professional to develop a comprehensive plan for addressing your unique needs.
How can you tell if someone has PTSD?
Recognizing if someone has PTSD involves observing their behaviors, emotions, and reactions over time. While only a qualified mental health professional can provide an official diagnosis, here are some signs that might indicate someone is experiencing PTSD:
- Re-Experiencing Symptoms: This includes flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, or distressing memories related to the traumatic event.
- Avoidance Behaviors: Individuals might avoid reminders, places, people, or situations that trigger memories of the trauma. This can also involve avoiding discussions about the traumatic event.
- Negative Changes in Mood and Cognition: This can include persistent negative beliefs about oneself or the world, distorted feelings of guilt or blame, inability to remember important aspects of the trauma, and a diminished interest in activities once enjoyed.
- Heightened Arousal: This can manifest as being easily startled, having difficulty sleeping, experiencing irritability or angry outbursts, and having difficulty concentrating.
- Emotional Distress: Individuals with PTSD often experience intense and prolonged emotional distress, including fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, and shame.
- Changes in Behavior: They might exhibit changes in behavior, such as isolating themselves from others, withdrawing from social activities, or avoiding situations that remind them of the trauma.
- Hypervigilance: Constantly being on high alert, as if expecting danger, is common among individuals with PTSD.
- Difficulty with Relationships: PTSD can affect relationships due to emotional distance, irritability, and difficulty in expressing emotions.
What is the life expectancy of someone with PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) itself does not directly determine life expectancy, but its effects on mental and physical health can indirectly influence overall well-being. Individuals with PTSD might experience chronic stress and anxiety, potentially leading to physical health issues like heart disease and immune system disorders. Moreover, untreated or poorly managed PTSD could contribute to the development of other mental health conditions such as depression, affecting quality of life.
Some individuals with PTSD might turn to substance abuse or engage in unhealthy coping behaviors, which can further impact their health and well-being. It's crucial to recognize that while PTSD alone may not determine life expectancy, addressing its symptoms, seeking professional help, and adopting healthy coping strategies can contribute to better mental and physical health outcomes, enhancing overall quality of life.
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