Navigating mental healthcare can be a difficult and confusing process. In our semi-monthly column, we take your questions for a psychiatrist and ask the professionals on your behalf.
Please note that this article is for educational purposes only. The following does not constitute official medical advice, and no treatment relationship has been established. You should consult your own doctors to best understand the needs of your unique situation. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), which is a 24/7 toll-free number. For non-crisis situations and non-U.S. resources, check out the resources on our Find Support page.
This month's question:
How do I recover from the trauma of bullying?
Dr. Christian-Brathwaite says:
Bullying is relatively common, so there is often an assumption that the damages are not significant. However, research has shown that chronic exposure to bullying can lead to long-lasting impacts on emotional, physical and cognitive development, self-esteem and overall trust of others. Victims of bullying frequently describe having difficulty developing or sustaining friendships or long-term relationships. Bullying can precipitate toxic stress. Toxic stress is the brain and body’s response to strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity, particularly if the adversity occurs in the context of a lack of support. Toxic stress leads to prolonged activation of the stress response system – i.e being in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze and leads to chronic inflammation and illness throughout our bodies. It is important to recognize that you have power in this situation. Utilize trusted adults to advocate for you and support your ability to stand up against bullies. A trusted adult does not necessarily have to be a parent or guardian. Your favorite teacher or staff, or even the parent of a friend can support you in having a voice. Research has shown that if a young person develops loving and receptive relationships, with understanding and patient adults, it can prevent or reverse some of the damage caused by toxic stress.
Being the victim of harassment, racism, or bullying are significant stressors that could put you at greater risk of developing PTSD or other mental illnesses. Symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing the traumatic event(s) through nightmares, flashbacks or negative thoughts that you cannot escape. You may also experience emotional numbness, detachment, and avoidance, as well as increased anxiety, irritability and feeling a sense of heightened arousal and agitation.
It is essential to recognize that your experiences and pain resulting from bullying are real. You were not responsible for the behavior of others. Victims of bullying often engage in self-doubt and blame. When you reflect on your past negative experiences, consider asking yourself “what happened to me” rather than “what is wrong with me”. Many of the symptoms you are currently experiencing may be secondary to the trauma you endured. Reactions to bullying can vary from avoidance and isolation to anxiety, self-harming, mood lability and anger. The best way to manage the symptoms that result from bullying or any traumatic experience is to seek mental health treatment. Below are possible interventions that you can try to help reduce the impacts of toxic stress and traumatic experiences. Please do not begin any new treatments without first speaking with your doctor. You can recover from the trauma of bullying!
Mindfulness techniques can be utilized to help manage anxiety that emerged as a result of bullying. Mindfulness has also been shown to reduce the effects of toxic stress and chronic inflammation. Mindfulness means being aware and present in the now. Mindful eating, for example, is when you focus on every bite, slowly consume your food and be present for the meal.
Take a news /social media hiatus: Online and social media bullying can be just as harmful as any other form of bullying. The constant inundation of information can lead to recurrent feelings of distress.
Stop reading comments
Turn off the automatic option for videos in your newsfeed
Do not look at your phone 30 minutes before bed
Turn off your ringer at night
Exercise: at least 30 minutes a day 3-5 days a week. Research has shown that exercise reduces stress, improves concentration and increases endorphins.
Meditation and Yoga: Both have been shown to reduce blood pressure, decrease cortisol levels and reduce negative thoughts and emotions. When meditating, make an effort to utilize the full expansion of your lungs by taking long, slow deep breaths. An effective inhale pushes your stomach out and an effective exhale should last from 3-5 seconds. Meditation can be a brief as a few minutes of deep breathing and repeating positive statements to yourself. For example, you can repeat statements like “I am at peace”, “I am safe”, “I am strong”.
LightBox/Light Therapy: If you find that your mood tends to worsen during the fall and winter months, you may have a seasonal component to your depression. Lightboxes mimic outdoor natural light and have some evidence for improving depression, poor sleep, and irritability
Daily Appreciation Journal: There are significant benefits of a daily practice of gratitude that include improved mood, more positive thinking, and better sleep
Seek Help: If you have unsafe thoughts, there is help available
Good Samaritans hotline: 877-870-4673
Samariteens at 800-252-8336 (for teenagers)
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: at 1-800-273 TALK (8255).
ABOUT DR. CHRISTIAN-BRATHWAITE
Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, MD is a Board Certified Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist. She specializes in telepsychiatry, school-based mental health, working with victims of trauma, women’s health and adolescent mental health. Dr. Christian-Brathwaite is the CEO of Well Minds Consulting Company.
 The Developing Child https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/
 van Geel M, Vedder P, Tanilon J. Relationship Between Peer Victimization, Cyberbullying, and Suicide in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(5):435–442.
 Trauma Informed Care Resources Guide. Crisis Prevention Institute. www.crisisprevention.com
 Child Trauma Academy www.childtrauma.org