Posttraumatic stress symptoms of bullying

In recent years, researchers have started to become aware that bullying can lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSD symptoms).

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Although bullying can result in PTSD symptoms, it is unclear whether bullying may also lead to the diagnosis PTSD (2) (Posttraumatic stress disorder). We will here explain a little bit about what these symptoms are, and about the relationship with bullying. We will not discuss the question of diagnosis here.

PTSD symptoms can occur to a greater or lesser extent. They appear in three subgroups:

  • The first of these is called intrusive memories. It means that one experiences frequent intrusive thoughts / memory images / "flashbacks" / reliving something bad that has happened. These intrusive memories are often triggered by something in the environment that reminds us of the bad things that occurred. An example of this could be the smell and sight of newly cut grass triggering bad memories about being bullied on the way home from school. The smell in itself can lead to collapse. In smaller children, intrusive memories sometimes lead to what we call repetitional play over themes or aspects of the event.
  • The next symptom group is something we call the physiological activation. This means that the body is "at full speed" and can be expressed in sleep problems, restlessness, etc. It can also cause irritation or anger, and difficulty in concentrating. It is easy to understand that these symptoms can interfere with schoolwork.
  • The third symptom group is what we call persistent avoidance behavior. This may appear as avoidance of thoughts, feelings or conversations / topics that are associated with the bad experience. It can also happen through avoidance of places, activities or people that remind us of the trauma. Pupils who have been bullied said they like to do detours to avoid seeing their school or other places they associate with the bullying, as this may evoke painful memories and feelings about what happened. Other time, they simply withdraw from situations where one talks about bullying and the like. Avoidance behavior may be both conscious and unconscious.

PTSD symptoms can significantly hinder those affected to function in daily life, and be very disruptive.

We have found a fairly clear correlation between being bullied and having PTSD symptoms afterwards. While one study (3) found that 37 percent of victims of bullying reported such ailments, another study (4) found that 25 percent of those who had been bullied had intrusive memories of what had happened long after they had left school.

In a survey we conducted ourselves (5), we found that 28 percent of boys who were bullied and 41 percent of girls who were bullied had symptom levels on par with people with a PTSD diagnosis and are in need of professional help. To get a diagnosis, one must however examine other factors in addition to symptom levels.

Text: Professor Thormod Idsøe