Bullying and the Innate Fight or Flight Response

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Any time a person has been the object of relentless bullying over an extended period of time, that person comes to be in a constant state of high alert. Although useful in short, immediate circumstances, this hyper-vigilance can be unhealthy if the person remains in this state for too long, causing stomach issues, headaches, and fatigue among other many other ailments. Still worse, such a continuous feeling of being under threat can also cause the person to overreact in response to certain occurrences.

Every living creature has an innate and perfectly natural physiological reaction in the event of a threat or attack. Called the Fight or Flight Response, it protects us from harm in dangerous situations in part through the release of adrenaline. When adrenaline is released into the blood, it becomes next to impossible not to do either of two things- fight or flee.

When I was being bullied and abused during school, escape was not an option for me. Usually, I was cornered or surrounded, either backed into a wall or some large object. With flight cut off to me as an option, what did I have left? Fight! I lived on this adrenaline every day, all day long. Just being around my classmates put my body and mind on constant alert. It was a horrible way to live.

It was just plain terrible! Getting on the school bus and walking through the entrance to the school felt like a death march. In the afternoons, I had horrible headaches that triggered violent nausea. For so long, I had managed to keep from vomiting, but eventually my luck ran out. I recall an afternoon in English class when my mouth and eyes began to water. I swallowed hard to control my gag reflexes as I approached the teacher’s desk to ask to be excused to the bathroom.

“What do you want?” Mrs. Caraway asked rudely.
“I don’t feel good.” I replied.

Without a word, she gave me the hall pass and I scurried my way to the girls’ room, barely making it to the first stall before launching a stream of the bitterest, most horrible tasting green liquid into the toilet.

This was followed by a long series of dry heaves which were quite painful. Instead of making me feel better, the vomiting made me feel worse and my headache became next to unbearable.

I’ll never forget the sound of the bathroom door as it flung open and the teacher stormed in, demanding to know why I was taking so long. I began to cry and in between gags and wretches, pleaded with her to let me go to the office and call my grandmother.

She accused me of making myself vomit so I could go home early.

When you’re a bullied kid, even a few teachers, having heard the rumors and falsehoods being spread about you by your bullies, begin to bully you too. It’s a very lonely and heartbreaking position to be in.

As time went on, the fear of going to school and having to face my classmates grew in me. It was like an infected tumor getting bigger and bigger with each passing day. My stomach would draw up every morning when I set foot on that school bus. The next eight hours was like walking through a minefield, never knowing when my next step could mean BOOM! and I would be hit, shoved, kicked, or bombarded with a torrent of taunts, insults and names. It was a situation I saw no end to, and to say that I was afraid would be an understatement. I was petrified.

Most never think of the magnitude of fear the victim must live with or the health consequences of living in that perpetual state of fight or flight. And sadly, although the impact to the physical health of the victim may not show up right away, it may rear its ugly head later in life.

Many bullied victims get into serious trouble when the bullying finally escalates and becomes physical. Everyday, innocent targets are unjustly suspended or expelled from school because they were forced to fight to defend themselves. Bullies have a real flair for charming and seducing teachers and staff, lying very convincingly and making the target look like the aggressor and victims are often severely punished for nothing more than trying to protect themselves, while the bullies are either given a slap on the wrist or escape with complete impunity.

However, teachers and school should know well that, just like all God’s creatures, victims of bullying have the fight or flight instinct.

It’s only natural that if you corner a dog and kick it enough times, sooner or later, you’ll get bit!

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4 thoughts on “Bullying and the Innate Fight or Flight Response

  1. I was bullied as a kid. Once someone tried to choke me by pulling on my coat from behind on a school bus. I couldn’t do anything because I was afraid of that kid’s bigger brother who also was on the bus.

    What is TRULY disturbing is that kids are not aware of the negative health effects due to bullying. However, is a civilized work place, any human resources department should be fully aware the repercussions of work place bullying. I’d say it’s HR’s dirty little secret that they’ve known for decades. That secret knowledge is cracking. Bullying does exist in the adult world. But the health effects as an adult can be more dramatic; suicide, heart attacks, auto-immune diseases, depression, PTSD …. for what? Because some insecure bully felt you were some sort of threat to them? Why do organizations protect the reputations of these bullies with non-disclosure agreements when the careers and health of the bullied are destroyed? Bullies, as adults, are truly the cockroaches of society. Treat their ailment … get help for them. Praying on others to bolster their ego is mentally sick! They need help. In the meantime, when a bully is identified in the workplace, they should immediately be disenfranchised of any POWER in that organization for the current and future health of the organization and for the bullied.

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    • I agree with you wholeheartedly, Michael. Sadly, corporations only seem to embolden the bullies. And bullies seem to be blessed with the ability to charm and seduce the right people to get what they want and the person who stands in their way is fair game. I am reading about the Dark Triad (Machiavellianism, Psychopathy and Narcissism) because these traits are what bullies seem to be possessed with. I believe that in order to defeat bullies, one must think like a bully. It’s a terrible thing. However, its reality. You have to get into the mind of a bully and know every tactic they use if you want to protect yourself. I have already learned a WEALTH of knowledge and I’m hungry for more. I hope this message finds you well and in good spirits. May God richly bless you!

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  2. Bullying in the workplace fundamentally changed me emotionally, mentally and physically. Having someone trying to emotionally trying to destroy you intentionally is truly not your typical stereotypical bullying you’ve heard in the media over the years. It’s all a game … the ‘law of the jungle’ … and quite accepted by the status quo … which is why is it so hard to curb it in the work environment. My goal is to make such behaviour illegal in the workplace. If I don’t shut up, as directed by a non-disclosure agreement of the very place that allowed this bully to survive off the misery of others, then there is a chance that my efforts will combine with the efforts or others, like yourself Cherie, and make an impact to improving society. To forget is the goal of all those who feed off of negative emotions.

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    • Michael, I admire you for using your voice and what you have been through to help others! And I agree with you wholeheartedly…that little “game” people of low morality play should be illegal in all areas! I truly believe that one day, lawmakers will open their eyes and see that laws need to be put in place to prevent this kind of behavior. It may be the “law of the jungle” now but I have faith that it won’t always be. Have a great Monday.

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