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Bullying Causes Anxiety Disorders – and It’s Not Just Kids!

by Mike on August 25, 2008 · 41 comments

Bullying among children has become a hot topic.

There are innumerable websites devoted to stopping bullying in schools. In addition, many studies have been done detailing the effects of bullying among young people. 

Adult bullying doesn’t receive the same amount of press. But it has been found that the social form of bullying doesn’t stop at childhood, but continues into adulthood. The same sorts of activities associated with childhood bullying are present in adults. Social bullying actions include:

  • Targeting a person’s social status to tear it down
  • Damaging a person’s relationships by shunning
  • Damaging a person’s reputation by spreading rumors
  • Excluding a person from social activities

Both childhood and adult bullying can cause Anxiety Disorders and depression. 

Bullying in childhood causes Anxiety Disorders and depression in young adults

Social bullying causes anxiety and depression

A recent study at the University of Florida discovered a link between social bullying in adolescence and Anxiety Disorders and depression in young adulthood. Allison Dempsey, the lead author, said,

Even though people are outside of high school, the memories of these experiences continue to be associated with depression and social anxiety. It was interesting to see these relationships still continue to exist even though they are in early adulthood now and in a completely different setting. … [T]his is a real problem and continues to be a real problem after students leave school.

While it is commonly thought that boys are the biggest bullies, girls participate in social bullying in equal numbers. The researchers found no gender differences in the link between social bullying and Anxiety Disorders and depression. 

Surprisingly, they also discovered that having friends or other positive social relationships didn’t lessen rates of Anxiety and depression in adulthood. Some children take the words and abuse to heart and begin to believe what’s being said about them. Eric Storch, co-author of the study, said,

Those types of negative thoughts are actually believed to be at the core of things like depression and anxiety. Behaviorally what starts happening is you avoid interactions and situations that could be quite positive for you.

Adult bullying in the workplace

Adult bullying most apparent in the workplace

Bullying patterns continue into adulthood, and can do as much or more damage. Adult bullying can occur in any setting, but it is most apparent in the workplace. There have been a number of studies dealing with adult bullying in the workplace. The main features of adult bullying they agree on are:

  • Threat to professional status — Belittling opinion, public professional humiliation, accusation regarding lack of effort.
  • Threat to personal standing — Name-calling, insults, intimidation, devaluing with reference to age
  • Isolation — Preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation, withholding of information
  • Excessive overwork — Undue pressure, impossible deadlines, unnecessary disruption
  • Destabilization — Failure to give credit when due, meaningless tasks, removal of responsibility, repeated reminders of mistakes, setting up to fail

Adult bullying in other settings

Adult bullying can occur anywhere

There are other settings besides the workplace where bullying can occur. Anywhere there is interaction between people is a possible setting for bullying. Neighbors bully, other church members bully, even your friends can bully you! Ask yourself if the person you are having trouble with:

  • Ignores you. Doesn’t say hello when you greet them. Doesn’t return phone calls or other messages.
  • Dismisses what you’re saying or “puts you down” while alone or in the presence of others.
  • Sabotages you or makes you look foolish, such as by “forgetting” to tell you about something important. Or if the person is a person in authority, sets you up to fail by making impossible demands of you?
  • Spreads rumors, lies and half-truths about you?
  • Frequently acts impatient with you, treating you like you are incompetent?
  • Blames and criticizes you?
  • Tries to intimidate you by by interrupting, contradicting and glaring at you and/or giving you the silent treatment?
  • Teases, ridicules, insults or plays tricks on you, especially in front of others?
  • Always insists on getting their own way and never apologizes?
  • Yells, points their finger, swears, insults or threatens you or call you names?

What is the result of bullying on the adult victim?

Adult bullying causes anxiety and depression

Studies of adult bullying have shown that at the very least, adult bullying causes anxiety and mild depression. But such behavior, especially when persistent, also has been shown to be the cause of Anxiety Disorders and clinical depression, as well. 

Just as in children, people susceptible to Anxiety Disorders and clinical depression take the bullying actions to heart, and begin to believe the bully’s actions reflect their true nature. This leads to an escalation of the kinds of thoughts that lead to diagnosable mental illnesses.

In particular, the sort of destabilizing effects that adult bullying causes can be a major factor in the development of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia and panic attacks leading to Panic Disorder.

What frequency of bullying causes Anxiety or depression?

A single action is not enough

The frequency of bullying actions that can then be called a pattern of bullying are a subject of debate. The definitions of a number of studies vary widely:

  • One incident per week, with incidents occur over a period of at least 6 months
  • Several incidents over the past six months
  • A single threatening act of bullying, i.e. no pattern is required

The definition I believe is the most accurate is the second, several incidents over the past six months. I have been the victim of, and have witnessed, many incidences of adult bullying, and they all fall within this definition. Less frequent bullying actions, though still upsetting, are usually not enough to trigger severe Anxiety Disorders or depression.

What can you do about adult bullying?

Five choices for handling bullying

A full discussion of what you can do about adult bullying is outside the boundaries of this article. However, the Bully Free Workplace site lists these five possible choices for handling workplace bullying:

  • Avoidance – A refusal to engage in the bullying. This is the most prevalent tactic, and typical of Anxiety Disorders. This is a not very effective method.
  • Taking the conflict and submitting – Very frequently used, especially when there is low confidence and self-esteem, symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia. This method is not very effective.
  • Compete – You push hard to get your own way. Can lead to a vicious circle as conflict escalates.
  • Compromise – More win-win, but requires the good will of both parties.
  • Collaborate – Most useful tactic, particularly with extreme conflict and workplace bullying. Both parties must have ownership and commitment to the solution.

What do you think?

As mentioned, I have been the object of bullying several times, and I have seen it happen to a number of others. I can say without question that bullying, both as a child and particularly as an adult, has contributed to the development of the Anxiety Disorders I have.

  • Have you ever been the victim of a bully, especially as an adult?
  • Do you identify with any of the characteristics of adult bullying?

As always, your comments are welcome!

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Resources used in this post:

Birdwell, April Frawley. (2008, April 22). Social form of bullying linked to depression, anxiety in adults. Retrieved August 23, 2008 from University of Florida News Web site:

Cade, Valerie. (2008). The Five Choices for Handling Workplace Bullying. Retrieved August 23, 2008 from Bully Free Workplace Web site:

Cowie, Helen. (1999, December). Adult Bullying. Retrieved August 23, 2008 from TMR Network Project Web site:

Science Daily. (2008, April 23). Social Form of Bullying Linked to Depression, Anxiety in Adults. Retrieved August 23, 2008 from Science Daily Web site:

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