- How your brain interprets toxic stress like bullying makes a difference to how harmful it is to you.
- Recent research unpacks the stages of how your brain assesses and assigns value to stressors.
- Becoming aware of how your brain operates can help you lessen the harmful effects of stressors like bullying.
When our six-year-old started a new after-school program, my husband and I and his older brother were all anxious. Our concern was not only that Angus was in the 50th percentile for height, but was in an even lower bracket for weight. In a word, he was small. It wasn’t just that Angus was small, he was also what is politely called in parental circles “a character.”
On his first day, Angus decided to wear a Spiderman suit, much to his brother’s horror. There was no talking Angus out of it. We arrived hovering and nervous at the door.
An older, larger boy immediately approached and said in a sneering way, “I don’t like your costume.”
Angus replied with a pitying sigh, “Well, I guess you don’t have much fun on Halloween.”
Angus sailed past his would-be bully and into the fray without looking back. His brother shrugged his shoulders and we realized we’d worried for nothing.
The pressing question is: why did Angus not feel afraid, hurt, panicked, downtrodden, exposed, or humiliated by this obviously aggressive and harmful put-down? Research holds key insights that all of us can use to better protect ourselves and others from social slights, and perhaps even bullying.
What the research says
Alongside their own research, Tracy Vaillancourt and Iryna Palamarchuk conducted an analysis of extensive studies into the subject of how the brain copes or does not cope with psychological stress. They discover that the way in which the brain appraises the stress or stimulus, assigning a value and valence to it, makes a difference as to how much it positively or negatively impacts a person.
Put another way, if someone hands a glass half full of water to a thirsty person, the brain could appraise the offering as a threat or as a gift. If the brain decides that the one offering the half-empty glass is stressing how little water there is to a dehydrated person, then the act might be seen as mocking or even cruel. Or, the brain may decide that it is a kind and thoughtful gesture to offer even half a glass of water to someone who’s thirsty.
As Vaillancourt and Palamarchuk explain: “Neurocognition plays a vital role in adaptation and monitors the severity of challenges faced.” In this simplistic example with the half-empty glass of water, the brain’s neurocognition is going to be influenced and shaped by many factors. The individual receiving the half-empty glass may have been bullied in the past by the one who offers it and recognizes this gesture, too, is part of a larger attempt to harm or shame him. The individual, in contrast, may have a wonderful relationship with the one who offers the water and thereby interprets the gesture as kindness.
Perhaps the thirsty individual comes from a country where drought has made them suffer as well as fear lack of hydration. The half-empty glass could then be marked by the brain as profoundly worrisome. Yet at the same time, the brain that knows lack of water may accept the half-empty glass with relief and hope, as it is so much better than no water. Vaillancourt and Palamarchuk put this changing brain interpretation into more precise terms: “psychological stimuli can vary in nature because it is the level of cognitive ‘attention’ that determines stress and its severity.”
If we return to the case study with six-year-old Angus, we can see that he gave the bullying comment very little “attention.” His brain did not raise up the level of the comment to high-stress or to significant severity. While former researchers imagined the brain struggling between the threat response system (from the amygdala) and the rational analysis system (from the prefrontal cortex), Vaillancourt and Palamarchuk’s research reveals a more complex brain interplay.
Four key phases that occur in the stressed brain
- Stressor detection
- Stress appraisal (assessment of stress severity)
- Stress reactivity
- Decision making
In Angus’s case, he detected the stress of the older, larger boy insulting his choice of outfit. He appraised the boy’s unkindness or threat as minor. His reactivity to the stress was negligible. His decision was to feel sorry for the boy’s lack of enjoyment of a key holiday and ignore his comment while walking away.
Let me be clear. I do not for one moment mean to suggest this is how a target should respond to bullying behavior. My goal is to show that a brain might respond in this way and we can examine how or why. The key takeaway is that while we cannot control aggressive, toxic, harmful stressors in our environment, we do have some control, through awareness and assessment, to lower our reactivity and make better decisions for our own health and happiness.
Vaillancourt and Palamarchuk emphasize that stress coping can change or fluctuate in predictable ways within an individual. If we become aware of whether a stressor is new or if it's triggering a past stress, or series of stressors, we can work toward prevention and coping strategies so that the negative or harmful stress does not become severe and lead to mental suffering or disorders.
The researchers highlight that when an individual identifies a threat and feels it poses too much of a risk to escape it, this combination can lead to surrender and defeat. It is this collapse we must strive to prevent. Past research identified this collapse as "learned helplessness." Vaillancourt and Palamarchuk's research is returning agency, along with helpful strategies, to those faced with toxic stress.
What Angus’ would-be bully did not know is that, despite his small stature, Angus was a survivor, a warrior in the physical and medical arenas. He was born with celiac disease, a fused spine, kidney disease, a cleft palate, and ear-nose-throat issues. Angus had already had six surgeries by the age of six, with one putting him in the ICU for five days. A mean comment did not register in Angus’ brain as a credible threat. It did not cause serious pain or make him afraid because he had many other experiences of serious pain and fear. The comment did not set his brain’s alarm off at a high frequency. Angus had been fortunate to grow up in a supportive, compassionate environment that lacked shaming or expectations of conformity. He was one of the lucky ones.
Vaillancourt, T., & Palamarchuk, I. (2021). "Mental Resilience and Coping With Stress: A Comprehensive, Multi-level Model of Cognitive Processing, Decision Making, and Behavior." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience vol. 15.