- Extensive research documents that chronic stress, such as that from bullying, puts the brain at risk.
- Research refutes the myth that bullying turns you into a strong adult.
- Youth suicide, ages 10-24, increased 57% from 2000 to 2018.
In our society, there is a prevailing myth that bullying and abuse are necessary evils for greatness. There’s a belief that constant stress makes an adult and even a child develop grit.
Phrases like “no pain, no gain” or “suck it up, buttercup” are common. The notion that an individual must be broken down to rise up is rarely questioned. These beliefs underlie our society’s normalized bullying.
Workplace bullying is mirrored in child populations. Bullying is still seen by many as a rite of passage, a necessary part of becoming an adult, even though by 2011 this myth was being debunked by science and discussed in mainstream media. However, it made little dent in the prevailing bullying and abuse paradigm.
Too many athletes are put through practices where they are lambasted with toxic masculinity and driven to the point even of death, as in the case of the University of Maryland’s Jordan McNair. As exposed in many sports organizations in Canada, far too many athletes are coached in an atmosphere of fear, humiliation, and favouritism—the classic construct of the popular bully who's friends with many, while targeting one or two with humiliation.
We have never had youth populations with such high levels of mental illness. It's resulted in repeated warnings from the Centers for Disease Control in the United States about how dire the situation is. Youth suicide, that’s 10-to-24-year-olds, increased 57 percent from 2000 to 2018. This statistic alone is a red flag that the stress under which young people are expected to cope is not healthy. Maybe the myth that constant stress from bullying and abuse makes you tough needs to be ousted.
According to science, toxic environments don’t toughen people up
Canadian researchers at the University of Ottawa, Iryna S. Palamarchuk and Tracy Vaillancourt, work at an intersection between neuroscience, neurology, psychology, and education. They build on extensive research that documents the brain dysfunctions connected to stressful events in order to show the way in which unpredictable, uncontrollable, and ambiguous stressors can disorder and injure our physiology.
Palamarchuk and Vaillancourt begin with extensive references to the literature that has established the correlation between stressors that evoke “feelings of fear, betrayal, confusion, and powerlessness” and “depression, PTSD, coronary heart disease, and ischemic stroke.” These are feelings that frequently arise when an individual is targeted by bullying and abuse.
Note that the research does not offer any suggestion that the target gets stronger or tougher when experiencing this kind of stress and resulting emotion. Notably, rather than developing resilience and grit from this kind of suffering, the target develops serious mental and physical illnesses.
If an individual attends a school, sports practice, or workplace where they are frequently targeted for, or even witness to, intense and/or chronic stressors of the kind suffered in toxic environments, the research shows that it negatively impacts their ability to think, reason, problem-solve and produce. According to Palamarchuk and Vaillancourt, the research shows that chronic stress increases the “risk of mental and social dysfunction,” as well as causes systemic inflammation in the brain and body. The brain mechanisms activated to manage intense and chronic stressors are correlated with “altered memory, decision-making, and behavior that impose a risk for mental disorders, (including) major depressive disorder.”
Stress leads to impulsive decision-making and risk-taking
Palamarchuk and Vaillancourt’s analysis and research reveal that brains suffering from prolonged stress carry a burden of uncertainty associated with “poor cognitive functioning and cortisol decline.” Being in a toxic environment can create stressful conditions for dopamine to drop and impulsive decision-making to rise “due to poor risk-processing.” Suffering individuals may feel the urge to “terminate the status quo in chronic intense stress.”
How many people even know that their risky behaviours in response to the stress of bullying and abuse, for example, are correlated with the harm being done to their brains? Think of the urges that targets suffer such as aggressive behaviour, self-medication with alcohol or drugs, self-harm, and even suicide. The knowledge that the brain’s neurotransmitters, like dopamine, are being affected, and stress hormones, like cortisol, are being affected may help stressed-out individuals get the help they need.
Resistance to urges to escape or “terminate the status quo” when exposed to toxic environments may well reside in recognizing that the brain is not making healthy long-term decisions. The brain in these scenarios is making risky, impulsive decisions.
Bullying and abuse put brains at risk
In our society, which believes bullying and abuse make us tougher, and does not understand the negative impact on the brain, it also leads us to believe that seeking professional help is a sign of weakness. Leading researchers like Palamarchuk and Vaillancourt, who have a far more complex and detailed understanding of how compromised the brain is by chronic stress and toxic environments, disagree.
With their advanced knowledge and research, Palamarchuk and Vaillancourt encourage those suffering from chronic stressors to improve cognitive control, namely how the brain makes decisions, thinks, problem-solves, and so on, with “psychological help,” as well as with “social assistance.”
If we were having balance issues or pain in our heart or struggle to breathe, we would not “tough it out.” We would seek out professional advice and intervention. We would reach out to our community for social support.
We would likely go straight to an emergency room or call an ambulance. However, far too many suffer in silence because they do not understand that their brains have been significantly compromised by constant stress, which can arise from toxic environments like those created by bullying and abuse. The challenge is to understand that the brain is an organ and, like the heart, is seriously harmed by bullying and abuse. It’s put very much at risk, like the heart, from chronic stress.
The heart may struggle to pump blood. It may be racing. This doesn’t usually impair your decision to get medical help. However, when your brain is having an equally negative reaction to intense stressors, the very mechanism of making good decisions is put in jeopardy. This is why knowledge is key. The more we are aware that the stress from bullying and abuse does not make us tough, but actually puts our brains at risk, the better.
Palamarchuk, I., & Vaillancourt, T. (2021). "Mental Resilience and Coping With Stress: A Comprehensive, Multi-level Model of Cognitive Processing, Decision Making, and Behavior." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 15: 1-15.