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Is It Natural to Respond to Bullying With Anxiety?

The theory of constructed emotion says "yes" and "no."

Key points

  • Research documents the way in which bullying is perceived by the brain as a serious threat.
  • The theory of constructed emotion empowers us to question the threat of bullying.
  • Emotion concepts are culturally coded, allowing individuals to deconstruct and replace them.
  • People can better protect themselves against the negative impact of bullying by choosing how they respond.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett researches and consults on the studies of many other scientists in order to better understand the ways in which our brains construct emotions. How can we gain insight into bullying and our responses to it via the theory of constructed emotion?

A child, or an adult even, who feels compelled to bully others may not know or realize that they might be taking the emotion concept of fear, humiliation, or shame (or all three) and translating them into aggressive conduct to relieve the stressful emotion concepts. They may believe that manifesting power over others, making them cower and feel fear, means that they are indeed powerful, which prior to the bullying instances, they could neither affirm nor trust. However, there are many ways to assert and establish power that are far healthier, less stressful, and more enduring than targeting others for bullying. It is a choice.

Targets of bullying may feel a great deal of anxiety in response to aggressive, hurtful, unjust, and threatening behavior. They may find themselves mirroring the emotion concepts of the bullying individual: namely fear, humiliation, or shame (or all three). Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “identifying with the aggressor,” which is an escape mechanism designed to survive the onslaught. As most know, bullying is a cycle, a transfer of harm.

Source: Artsy Solomon/Pixabay
How you respond to bullying can be a choice.
Source: Artsy Solomon/Pixabay

Emotion concepts can be a choice.

What many do not know, including those who bully and those who react with anxiety, is that an emotion concept can become a choice on a brain level. As soon as we become aware that we have the ability to select a behavior, like bullying, and a reaction, such as anxiety, we are empowered to change those emotion concepts and resulting acts.

Anxiety doesn’t happen to the targets when they’re being bullied. Targets are not reacting to bullying. In cases where being targeted is a repeat occurrence or has happened by others in the past, the brain predicts the harmful behavior and selects from past experiences the emotion concepts: anxiety, fear, humiliation, or shame. If bullying made targets anxious in the past, perhaps multiple times, their brains may decide it’s an appropriate emotion concept for the present experience of being bullied. In other words, the brain is not being triggered; it’s predicting.

The way someone learns that anxiety, fear, humiliation, and shame are culturally accepted emotion concepts in response to bullying is through family, society, TV, movies, books, media, and social media. Individuals learn from their upbringing, influenced by caretakers, siblings, friends, and all forms of culture.

If you were raised in a culture that taught that bullying was a lowly, weak behavior that was laughable at best and deplorable at worst, your brain would seek to find an appropriate emotion concept for it and perhaps choose disdain, disgust, pride, or all three. It would not select “anxiety.” Anxiety, like all other emotions, is a construct. That said, Barrett’s research, along with extensive research by other neuroscientists, documents how the brain registers bullying conduct as highly threatening and damaging.

Evolution meets culture in that the brain is attuned to power imbalances and, from the earliest age, harnesses empathy to navigate a society of complex relationships. Barrett discusses how a powerful individual like a boss, teacher, or coach can cause a deficit in the body budget by simply entering the room, and the brain’s main task is to manage the various systems that comprise a balanced body. Now imagine the impact, the significant withdrawals on the body budget, when the powerful person manifests bullying behaviors. Bullying leaves the body significantly unbalanced and can lead to a whole host of serious health issues. Since our society is full of bullying, it is worth trying to create emotion concepts that better protect our body budget.

Engin Akyurt/Pixabay
Bullying is perceived as a threat to the brain and body.
Source: Engin Akyurt/Pixabay

It’s possible to deconstruct and recategorize emotion concepts.

Barrett suggests we learn to deconstruct emotion concepts that do not contribute to our health, balance, and happiness. Even though we frequently see depictions in our culture of the target responding with sadness, misery, shame, fear, and loneliness when being bullied, we can consciously deconstruct these emotion concepts. We can question why culture conditions us to give away our power when faced with bullying.

After deconstructing culturally-coded emotions, we can choose to select independent ones that push back against our cultural conditioning. What would happen to the body budget if we re-programmed our brain to select amusement rather than sadness, hope instead of misery, belonging rather than shame, courage instead of fear, and connection as opposed to loneliness? We do not need to identify with the aggressor. We can train our brain to see the bullying individual as imbalanced, lacking in the sense of holistic integrity, desperate to find a target to fulfill their own emptiness. We can learn to select the emotion concept “pity” for someone who bullies.

Teaching adults and children to develop a rich vocabulary of emotion concepts

An adult being bullied by another adult, even when he or she is in a position of power, can deconstruct culturally scripted responses and replace them with new emotion concepts. Clearly, this practice is more challenging for a child faced with peer bullying and even more so for a child being bullied by an adult. Still, children could be empowered to have more self-protective responses, but that requires education and training.

Source: Rustu Bozkus/Pixabay
Cowering can be a survival strategy faced with bullying.
Source: Rustu Bozkus/Pixabay

If we factor in evolution, cowering, casting down one’s eyes, and making oneself small may well be needed survival strategies when confronted with an unpredictable, aggressive individual. Animals use these same techniques to stay alive, and humans do too, especially children, who are the most vulnerable.

That said, humans can use their language and their ability to deconstruct an emotion concept and recategorize it in a way that better serves them. Barrett explains that we cannot create an emotion concept without language, but imagine how much more empowering it is to assess what signals the brain is receiving from the body and then interpret them from a rich place of language.

Anxiety then becomes a generic term for shivers, butterflies, nervousness, excitement, anticipation, disquiet, doubt, and so on. Barrett advises developing a rich, nuanced vocabulary for emotion concepts that allows a broad range of interaction with society, including the negative conduct displayed by bullying. Putting in time and effort to attain a rich, complex vocabulary can offset defaulting to anxiety, which may have been needed for safety in childhood, but no longer applies meaningfully to who you are as an adult.


Barrett, L. (2017). How Emotions Are Made. Boston, Mariner Books.

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