Post-traumatic stress disorder has always been linked most closely with war veterans, but now it's understood that it can develop from other types of traumatic experiences as well. One of those experiences is bullying.
When you've been bullied repeatedly and made to feel like there's nothing you can do to stop it, then it's not that surprising that you might experience post-traumatic stress symptoms after the situation has passed.
The overwhelming nature of bullying combined with the inability to do anything about it is the root cause of PTSD from bullying. It can be scary when you experience the symptoms of PTSD, but the good news is that it is possible to manage them and get to a point where they are not as severe.
Symptoms Of PTSD From Bullying
Does the thought of your school days make you shudder? Maybe you can't even look at a school building or school bus without having nasty flashbacks. Maybe you haven't been able to go to class reunions because there are certain people you don't want to run into. Maybe you find yourself always on the defensive and think that others are trying to bully you in some way.
These are all signs of PTSD from bullying. What you need to remember is that if you experience any of these symptoms, you are not alone.
Symptoms of PTSD fall into three categories.
And I've experienced all three types. Yeah, not fun. In fact, I still experience symptoms but they're not as bad as they used to be. I'm honestly not sure if they'll ever go away completely but I've learned to live with them.
Re-experiencing is when you relive the moments in your mind. This can get triggered from something like being in a school environment or it can happen in the form of nightmares. What makes this so scary is that you can feel like you've gone right back in time to when the bullying happened and you can feel everything just as you did then.
I've been lucky not to experience nightmares, but I can't say the same for my waking hours. I can't tell you how many times I've relieved the past in my head. It seems to get triggered when I feel angry or when something reminds me of that time. When I think back to that time I just get upset with myself for "letting" the abuse happen. Sometimes I even think about what it would have been like to get revenge but then I realize that I'm only causing myself unnecessary suffering.
Avoidance is when you try to avoid things that would trigger flashbacks or emotions. This is where you might avoid the place where the abuse happened, or you might avoid certain people who either did the bullying or are related to them in some way. You just know that it would be too difficult to face these people or situations again.
This symptom has been a big one for me. In fact I haven't looked at my old school since the day I left it 18+ years ago. And I've been by it several times. I just haven't looked. I can't bring myself to do it nor do I have any desire to. I feel that a flood of emotions and memories will come back to me if I do and I can't risk that happening. I've come too far for that. I don't believe that we need to put ourselves back in our past environments in order to move on and heal. I think it's perfectly fine to walk away and never look back. Some people may need to confront their past in this way but it's an individual thing.
Arousal is when you're hyper aware of dangerous situations. This is most common right after the trauma. It's that always looking over your shoulder and not trusting anyone feeling. You might find that you have difficulty sleeping or trouble concentrating because you're expecting something bad to happen. You might also get startled very easily, especially if the bullies liked to sneak up on you and do things.
Right after my bullying ended, I remember being fearful of the intentions of everyone. I couldn't even go to the grocery store without thinking that the person standing next to me was judging me. It was terrible and ridiculous at the same time. To this day I still catch myself thinking this way but I've learned to become less concerned with what others think. As the saying goes, "What others think of you is none of your business."
Experiencing PTSD from bullying is also a factor in low self-esteem. If you think about what happened to you and you blame yourself for it then you're not going to think too highly of yourself. You're also most likely to suffer from relationship problems after PTSD, which will also lead you to not think too good of yourself.
I had some serious trust issues in the first few years, and lost relationships over it. I blamed myself for that happening. I felt like a failure when it came to maintaining relationships with anyone whether it be friends or family. It's another one of those things that takes time to get better.
PTSD VS Complex PTSD
Have you ever heard of complex PTSD? It's actually what I've been describing in this post. It sounds a lot like the PTSD you might normally think of but the difference is that it is how PTSD is described when the trauma is repetitive and not just a one-time incident. It's also used when the trauma causes the person to feel trapped in the situation with no sense of control.
You can probably see how this applies to bullying. By definition, bullying is, "A form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort," according to the American Psychological Association. Based on this definition, we know that bullying is a repetitive thing and, I don't know about you, but I certainly felt trapped. Maybe the bullying wasn't life-threatening, as is typically the case with regular PTSD, but it is certainly a threat nonetheless.
As I said above, I don't know if I'll ever be completely free of symptoms, but I now know how to live with them. For me it involves avoiding known triggers, as well as feeling like I have control of my life. An important step you can take if you feel like you have symptoms of PTSD is to get professional help. You don't have to suffer in silence.
Because PTSD results from a loss of control, doing things to make you feel in control again can be extremely helpful. Check out my list of 23 effective strategies for building your self-esteem that could be a great place to start.
I know how scary and frustrating it can be to experience symptoms of PTSD from bullying, but I also know that it doesn't have to always be like that. Between work you can do with a therapist and work you can do on your own, you can get to a place where your symptoms don't interfere anymore or maybe even go away completely.
Please leave a comment and let me know if you have any stories or questions.
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