Stress-Related Health Impairment

How Bullying Can Affect Your Brain and Body


Stressors, aspects of the work environment and the behavior of people working there, can generate stress. Bullies are stressors, but so are coworkers who do nothing when you expect them to help. In addition, do-nothing institutional helpers — HR and senior management — exacerbate problems.

Stress is the biological human response to stressors. It is physiological and real, not just imagined. Low-level stress may be necessary to compel people to act. However, severe stress, which prevents rational, controlled action, has overwhelmingly negative consequences.

Distress, not eustress, is the harmful variety of stress. Distress triggers the human stress response which is an automatically coordinated release of glucocorticoids, cortisol being the most prominent hormone, that floods the brain and body. Prolonged exposure of brain tissue glucocorticoids leads to atrophy of areas responsible for memory, emotional regulation and an ability to sustain positive social relationships.

Stress-related diseases and health complications from prolonged exposure to the stressors of bullying:

  • Cardiovascular Problems: Hypertension (60%) to Strokes, Heart Attacks
  • Adverse Neurological Changes: Neurotransmitter Disruption, Hippocampus and Amygdala atrophy
  • Gastrointestinal: IBD, colitis
  • Immunological Impairment: More frequent infections of greater severity
  • Auto-immune disorders
  • Fibromyalgia (21%), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (33%)
  • Diabetes (10%)
  • Skin Disorders (17%)

Some physical indications of the above stress might include:

  • Nausea
  • Tremors of the Lips, Hands, Etc.
  • Feeling Uncoordinated
  • Chills
  • Profuse Sweating
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid Heartbeat
  • Rapid Breathing
  • Elevated Blood Pressure
  • Chest Pain
  • Uncontrollable Crying
  • Headaches

Each of the symptoms can start small and may seem unrelated, but the presence of such indicators should be heeded as a warning.

Mental Health Harm

Psychological-Emotional-Mental Injuries

Bullying is often called psychological harassment or violence. What makes it psychological is bullying’s impact on the person’s mental health and sense of well-being. The personalized, focused nature of the assault destabilizes and disassembles the target’s identity, ego strength, and ability to rebound from the assaults. The longer the exposure to stressors like bullying, the more severe the psychological impact. When stress goes unabated, it compromises both a target’s physical and mental health.

Psychological-Emotional Injuries

  • Debilitating Anxiety (80%)
  • Panic Attacks (52%)
  • Clinical Depression: new to person or exacerbated condition previously controlled (49%)
  • Post-traumatic Stress (PTSD) from deliberate human-inflicted abuse (30%)
  • Shame (the desired result of humiliating tactics by the bully) – sense of deserving a bad fate
  • Guilt (for having “allowed” the bully to control you)
  • Overwhelming sense of Injustice (Equity – the unfairness of targeting you who works so hard; Procedural – the inadequacy of the employer’s response to your complaint)

PTSD is the result of environments that traumatize, in those working conditions there is little predictability or control. This can create an intensive or overwhelming threat to a person which often results in the destruction of his or her sense of security.

PTSD, best known as a war wound, is actually possible for anyone whose coping mechanisms have been overwhelmed. It happens in childhood abuse cases, domestic violence cases, and the workplace. When a worker suffers PTSD, the workplace for that person has become a war zone.

Please know that these are injuries. Depression starts in bullied workers who never experienced it before. For the person who was previously depressed and successfully managing it, bullying exacerbates the condition. Bullying causes injuries, albeit psychological in nature and unseen, as surely one can be injured from physically unsafe conditions at work.

Bullying, Economic Crises, and Suicide

In these times of pandemic unemployment and loss of health insurance, many people are stressed as much as bullied workers have always been. Without insurance, mental health treatment is often unaffordable. The raging economic crisis takes a significant toll on individuals, couples, families, and children. Financial strain is linked to increased incidence of domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce, and a disruption of normal childhood development.

Sometimes, the violence is turned inward. When the “way out” seems unattainable and no alternatives can be imagined, some people contemplate suicide. In the 2012 study, 29% of bullied targets considered suicide and 16% had a plan. If you or someone you know are talking about suicide.

Risk of Re-Traumatization

PTSD is terribly misunderstood by bullied targets and witnessing coworkers and family members. Targets will suffer uncontrollably without treatment by a trauma specialist (an ordinary counselor won’t suffice). Trauma’s onset is typically delayed and it lasts long after removal from traumatizing conditions. That baffles everyone. People in your life can’t understand why or how the pain lasts so long.

Events that sustain PTSD and prevent the start of healing include fighting back with your employer, the tortuous multi-step years-long grievance process dragged on by your employer, disability or workers comp insurance claims, and lawsuits with their invasive depositions that take years to complete.

The problem of re-triggering the trauma, months or even years later, is more vexing. You believe you have healed. You passed the magic one year period since all triggering-events ended. Your lawsuit is long past. Then, you drive by the parking lot or run into former coworkers who abandoned you when you needed them most and all the negative emotions come rushing back. You are again paralyzed. It is not a weakness on your part. Rather, it is proof of the intensity of the trauma you endured.

In a way, you might always be a “recovering” victim of trauma. Proneness to re-traumatization differs across individuals. It has been described as similar to cancer that returns after remission that can be driven back into remission. Practice your desensitization skills and revisit your counselor familiar with your case. It will be a quicker return to normalcy than when the traumatizing bullying first occurred.

Social Harm

Coworkers Ostracism: Shunning through Rejection to Abandonment

Humans are social animals. We need validation and confirmation of our humanity and normalcy with others. That’s why social norms and the pressure to confirm determine so much of our behavior (though we like to think we are rugged individualists, masters of our own universe) as so much research proves. Thus, when we have the bonds with others stripped away, we suffer a loss.

Kip Williams, the Purdue Univ. expert on ostracism, writing in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2007, has found that when an individual is exposed to social exclusion in a simulated game experiment, responses follow a predictable sequence: (a) a reflexive painful response, (b) increased sadness and anger stemming from threats to our need for belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence, (c) a reflective, cognitive stage to appraise the situation, the reasons for and sources of ostracism, with individual differences guiding the resulting conclusion. If relational needs (belonging) are most thwarted, then the person might behave in a prosocial manner. If one’s need to be recognized is most affected, then the person may result in attempts to regain control through provocative or antisocial actions. With repeated incidents of ostracism, the ability to respond at all is depleted, leading to feelings of helplessness, despair and alienation.

There is also neuroscience evidence that social exclusion triggers pain and trauma pathways in the brain. In 2011, there was an explosion of research on the feelings of physical pain related to breakups in romantic relationships. This is consistent with Williams’ work. Advice for dealing with love lost was to take 2 ibuprofens! It helps.

A 2010 study found that groups tend to expel members whose generosity exceeds their own. The group throws out altruists because, by comparison, the greedier and more self-interested within the group, can’t stand the goodness of the one person. So, they expel them so they stop looking bad. The other reason is that people think the altruist fouls up the group’s norm, pushing the group to be better than it actually is. It pushes the group toward a higher ethical standard than the average group member wants for the group.

The point should be clear. When people with whom we have daily intensive contact shun us, it hurts us and challenges our assumptions about our world.

Principal Findings from the WBI 2008 Co-Workers’ Response Study

Online sample of 400 visitors to the WBI website, August, 2008. A self-selected sample of respondents, 95% of whom described themselves as targets of bullying in the workplace. 85% of survey respondents were women.

Here’s what targets said their coworkers did in response to the bullying (of which they said 95% of coworkers were aware):

  • 8% banded together and confronted the bully as a unit; stopped the bullying
  • 1% offered specific advice to the target about what he or she should do to stop it
  • 4% gave only moral, social support
  • 7% did and said nothing, not helping either the target or bully
  • 2% voluntarily distanced themselves from the target, isolating him or her
  • 8% followed the bully’s orders to stay away from the target
  • 9% betrayed the target to the bully while appearing to still be friends
  • 7% publicly sided with the bully and acted aggressively toward the target
  • 5% Not sure

Even Family & Friends Tire

Spouses are the most supportive. However, we found in our year 2000 online study that women spouses sustained their relationships with bullied husbands longer than husbands stayed with bullied wives. Though family members give much more support than coworkers, they tire. Evenings, weekends and vacation time lost to the bullied target’s obsession over her or his fate takes its toll on families. The target finds it impossible to turn off the agony after work. The family wants their spouse, father and brother back. Resentment grows. Family counseling could help. It also helps to share information at this website and the book, The Bully At Work, with family so they understand the pressure generated by bullying on the involuntary target.

It really makes sense for targets to make a deal with their families. While under duress from bullying, the family agrees to grant the target “emotional credits” and temporarily sacrifice a normal life. In exchange, the target agrees to work to end the bullying and get safe so those “credits” can be repaid and the family can once again have unlimited time with, and attention from, the now-former target. It’s a payback for compassion extended during the acute phases of the bullying.

Economic Harm

Financial Devastation

Workplace bullying, by definition, happens at work. It interferes with the target’s confidence that her or his livelihood is assured. Broad societal economic crises threaten millions of workers at the same time and impersonally. Bullying is a laser-focused, personalized economic crisis affecting the target and her or his family. When bullies have control over the targets’ livelihood (as in 72% of situations), they have tremendous leverage to cause financial pain. Single parent workers are the most vulnerable.

Controlling bullies can block transfers to a safe job, can make targets so miserable that they quit (constructive discharge), or impair target health to the extent they have to quit to stop the stress from a campaign of interpersonal destruction. In the U.S., losing work means losing health insurance. No job. Get even sicker. Lose the ability to seek medical help.

Some economic harms include…

  • Lost opportunity to be left alone to do the once-“loved job”
  • Forced to transfer from loved job, often a punitive transfer (13%)
  • Constructively discharged without reasonable cause (24%)
  • Target quits to reverse decline in health and sanity (40%)

In both the 2010 and 2007 scientific U.S. Workplace Bullying Surveys, we asked what stopped the bullying. The consistent finding is that targeted individuals lose their jobs by quitting or being terminated.

What thrives and what disappears in the Workplace?

Impact of Workplace Bullying on Family

Displacement, Withdrawal, Anxiety & Despondency

The most obvious and direct impact is displacement of the target’s anger and shame about being bullied at work onto the family at home. This is akin to the coming home and “kicking the dog.” When anger can’t be leveled against the source of frustration and humiliation, the bully at work, especially when the bully is a boss, often the only outlet is outside work. The difficulty of confronting-stopping a boss is traced to the historical uphill battle to cross the “power gradient.” Telling a boss to go to hell brings certain retaliation. It’s part of our hierarchical world.

By the way, displacement could occur on the way home. Pity other drivers on the commute home or wait staff at restaurants at lunchtime who might be in harm’s way. Nevertheless, most workers exposed to abusive supervision tend to bring it home. Violence at work begets violence at home.

Much more common is emotional withdrawal. Targets are overwhelmed by emotional abuse and exhausted at work. It takes all energy they can muster just to survive the 8 to 10 hours and commute to home. The stress strips away their appetite. So, they come home, skip dinner, and retire to bed seeking protection that sleep might provide. Sadly, sleep is disrupted by the distress caused by bullying. Solid REM sleep is rarely enjoyed. Sleep deficits make the targeted family member a non-participant, especially weekends. Traditions and family routines get postponed or abandoned completely. Everyone’s schedules are changed to accommodate the wounded worker in the family. This builds resentment. But targets who do not seek counseling or have their bullying situations reversed are trapped in a sleepless withdrawal loop.

Bullied targets also bring home anxiety. This is a normal reaction to the personalized stressors that bullying poses — domination, intimidation and humiliation. Even for individuals who have never experienced abuse (33% of workplace bullying targets), bullying fosters anxiety, the forewarning of distress. Distress, in turn, causes many stress-related health problems for targets. The point is that the anxiety is seen and felt by all family members exposed directly to it.

The inability to stop the bullying by the targeted parent creates a sense of despondency. The unhelpful reactions of coworkers further worsens the feeling. Thus, coming home is the message that mother or father or lover or wife or husband, once an integrated adult, is falling apart, suddenly powerless.

The coupling of anxiety and despondency is a toxic stew that affects the mood at home. Prolonged exposure renders both adults and children vulnerable to long-term effects from situations over which no one at home can control.

Spouses & Partners

The wrath heaped upon spouses and partners is the worst. Because of the shame, targets wait (unsuccessfully) for their situations to resolve themselves, and delay sharing details with their loved ones. Therefore, the unexpected emotional dumping catches partners off guard. They often do not know the underlying reason. Female partners are especially vulnerable to domestic violence — physical and emotional. Male partners at home could be subjected to emotional abuse (and some physical abuse). In any form, the violence teaches the children inappropriate ways to cope with stress.

For this reason, bullying can drive a wedge between partners. Separations and divorces result. From an early WBI survey we learned that women partners of bullied workers stayed longer in relationships than men did.

Seek couples counseling from a therapist who understands trauma — not just family dynamics. Though the experiences are vicarious, and not direct, the trauma is just as real for spouses and partners.

Of course, couples can be forced closer together to survive the emotional crises that bullying visits on them. Cohesion is high, but stress is doubled. Most of the stress comes from the impending loss of economic security. It is all worsened if the bullied partner is the sole wage earner for the family. Apprehension of facing destitution is distressful for everyone. Given the high probability that the target will lose her or his job, the fear is not imaginary. Bully bosses constantly threaten to end targets’ job and hopes of finding the next job, which is dependent on a good referral from a supervisor. It is way too much control by one person over the life of another human being.

Spouses and partners aware of the bullying experience helplessness from not being able to stop it. They vicariously experience the emotional strain but cannot control its intensity or exposure time. They cannot intervene at work. They stand by watching their afflicted mate spiral down into an emotional morass with little they can do to help. Most partners try to stay positive, attempting to convince their targeted mate to be similarly positive. Eventually, even intimate others tire of rejected suggestions, their inability to make a difference, and attempts to protect the children. If the bullying does not stop, even the most loyal loving partner considers ending the relationship.


Adult children, of course, will be affected like the non-targeted parent, if still living at home. Adult children in college or in the workforce will be capable of providing support to the bullied parent. The only possibility of harm from child to parent happens in the case of disbelief. As with coworkers or anyone listening to the bullied target’s story, a child not treating the reported experience as credible is particularly debilitating to the parent.

Children old enough to be deprived of quality time with the bullied parent will voice their resentment and anger. That compounds the target’s guilt. Now, guilt compounds the already present shame. However, for the child, it is somewhat more healthy to express her or his negative feelings.

Young children should not be expected to understand the reason for the bullied parent’s behavioral or emotional changes. In fact, rarely do targets and spouses understand. They must be shielded and protected. The greatest danger, short of the risk of violence, is that the bullied parent’s withdrawal deprives the developing child of the much needed intimate relationship with that parent. If the bullied parent is not the one who deprives the child of the security of emotional acceptance, the other parent must work doubly hard to not allow tending to the partner lead to an inadvertent deprivation. Research demonstrates clearly that parental emotional deprivation leads to neurological deficits in the ability to experience or express empathy and compassion for others. In other words, young children in households invaded by workplace bullying may become socially impaired as a result.

Finally, young children will also absorb the prevalent emotional climate in the home. If it is unbounded optimism, acceptance and love, they will be healthy adults. If, instead, it is a feeling of anxiety, they will develop an unhealthy level of neuroticism. They become less resistant to life stressors, more likely to manifest fear, anxiety, depression and mood disorders. Instead of developing resilience, they are sensitive or hypersensitive. They become more prone to be bullied in school, in the workplace and in relationships.

The Scourge of Co-Dependency

A family with a parent bullied at work is akin to a dysfunctional family with a member suffering alcoholism or substance addiction or emotional trauma. Everyone avoids engagement with the afflicted person. They learn to walk on “eggshells” lest they trigger emotional episodes. They subordinate their own needs to those of the “special person” in the family. They learn to communicate in code. They speak “around” the person they fear directly confronting. They learn to be so good at indirect communication, they never learn, in the case of young children, or forget, in the case of adults, how to be clear and direct about what they personally want and need. Truthfulness is sacrificed for the sake of survival. Timidity replaces courage. Fear dominates. It becomes a way of life. It’s no way for children to grow up healthy and emotionally confident and strong.

As adults, a co-dependent “world view” accepts abuse as normal routine. Co-dependent people never challenge institutions that threaten their identity. They do not become the change agents. Instead, they are the silent compliant ones who enable the abusive conduct of others.

Co-dependents become the do-nothing witnesses to injustice in our world that stand idly by, preferring to lurk in the shadows they think will protect them from being future targets.