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When people who hold a certain power in social situations—at school, college, office, and most recently, in cyberspace—try and make other people feel helpless or powerless, it is termed as bullying.

Bullying refers to intentional and repeated verbal or physical negative behaviour, the purpose of which is to intimidate or harm another person.

There are at least two types of bullying: direct and indirect or relational bullying. While direct bullying includes examples of physical and verbal abuse against the victim, indirect bullying can be more insidious - snide remarks, posting an unflattering picture online without a person’s consent, knowingly excluding someone from a group discussion, gossiping and slandering.

Cyberbullying, or bullying over a phone, electronic device or social media, can take both direct (example, verbal abuse and threats) and indirect (example, slander or mean-spirited jokes aimed at the victim) forms.

Being bullied is an extremely stressful experience that results in the victim developing anxiety, self-esteem issues, depression and even substance abuse.

Research shows that bullying behaviour can have its roots in health and family problems—children who experience or see abusive behaviour at home are also likely to perpetuate it at school or in a playground. Further, bullying has long-term negative outcomes for bullies too. Research shows that bullies tend to indulge in alcoholism and have difficulty forming friendships as grown-ups.

“One study found that, among bullies, nearly one-third had attention-deficit disorder, 12.5 percent had depression, and 12.5 percent had oppositional conduct disorder... one study found that bullies tend to engage in frequent excessive drinking and other substance use more often than victims or bully-victims. Research has found that, as adults, bullies often display externalizing behaviors and hyperactivity. Finally, being a bully has been associated with antisocial development in adulthood,” wrote Paul R. Smokowski and Kelly Holland Kopasz in “Bullying in School: An Overview of Types, Effects, Family Characteristics, and Intervention Strategies”, for the US National Association of Social Workers.

Read on to know how bullying leaves a lasting impact on our brains, and tips to deal with bullies.

  1. Types of bullying
  2. Health effects of bullying
  3. Tips to deal with bullying
  4. Takeaways
  5. Doctors for Health effects of bullying

There are different types of bullying behaviour. Here’s a quick look at the types, as given in a peer-reviewed article published in Advances in Pediatrics:

Type of bullying Methods and signs
Physical bullying

Shoving, hitting, pushing, kicking, choking or taking something from the victim

Verbal bullying

Name-calling, threatening, taunting, teasing with the intent to hurt, psychological intimidation using words

Relational bullying Gossiping, slandering, sabotage, convincing peers to exclude victims
Cyber bullying

Threatening, harassing, taunting, intimidating using an electronic device or social media

(Source: “Bullying and Victimization Among Children” by Rashmi Shetgiri)

Bullying can be direct—the bully could directly address or hurt the victim, by threatening, hitting, blackmailing or stealing from them with the intent to hurt or humiliate the victim. Bullying can also be indirect or relational—where the bully says something to a third person or does something anonymously or deliberately ignore them in a group to intentionally hurt the victim.

Cyberbullying is the latest form of bullying, though many of the characteristics remain unchanged. The bully still exerts some kind of influence or power and does, by means of mobile phones, text messages, instant messaging, blogs, websites like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or emails 

  • Forward or post the victim's private emails, text messages or photos without the victim's permission
  • Spread rumours about the victim online
  • Threaten via messages, emails or posts
  1. Bullying in school and college
  2. Bullying in the workplace

Bullying in school and college

Bullying in schools and other educational institutions has been going on for as long as we can imagine. Despite schools taking proactive measures to make sure that every student understands the consequences of bullying, it still remains a problem.

Studies show that one in five children is bullied while in school. Regardless of the type of bullying, it involves a bully who is typically either more physically powerful or socially liked and bystanders.

Bystanders may be peers who do not actively participate in the process of intimidation but witness the act without trying to intervene.

Bullying in the workplace

Bullying is often seen as something that is only encountered in student groups. However, that is far from the truth. Office environments can be equally toxic. While bullying at the workplace can involve rudeness or arguments, it is likely to be more subtle. It might include:

  • Picking on someone unnecessarily
  • Refusing to acknowledge contributions
  • Excluding people
  • Spreading malicious rumours about them

It is distinct from bullying at educational institutes as the victim need not be traditionally weak. It could be the victim’s strength that triggers the bully.

Some of the health effects of physical bullying can be obvious (bruises, cuts). Verbal and online bullying don't leave scars, but they can be just as harmful. Here's a look at the mental health effects of bullying:

  1. Effects of bullying on mental health

Effects of bullying on mental health

Studies have shown that children who were bullied by peers had significant mental health problems as adults—even more significant than children who were mistreated by their parents or caregivers.

Studies have also shown that bullies and victims both have an increased risk of depression, panic disorder and behavioural and emotional problems.

Bullying and the brain 

A tremendous amount of research has been done on this subject. It shows that not only does the victim experience negative feelings like anxiety during bullying, but also carries this behaviour forward into adulthood. This essentially means that apart from the psychological trauma, chronic bullying can actually alter the shape of the adolescent brain for life.

The brain consists of various complex components. It is divided into two hemispheres with each hemisphere having a Caudate and a Putamen that serve important functions. In a groundbreaking discovery, it was revealed that victims of chronic bullying lost more brain volume, altering the shape of the left caudate— responsible for learning—and left putamen—responsible for movement.

Another study showed that the stress of experiencing chronic bullying could lead to damage due to the stress hormone cortisol.  The hypothalamus is a small region at the base of the brain that controls the body’s stress response. Upon detecting danger, the hypothalamus gets activated to produce adrenaline, which is the body’s "fight or flight" hormone. If danger is continued to be perceived, cortisol (stress hormone) is then released into the bloodstream, which allows the body to operate at maximum performance when exposed to a stressor.

What happens with chronic bullying is that the adrenal glands keep releasing cortisol, resulting in the body being in a constant state of alertness. Since there is no time to rest and recover, functions like memory, cognition, appetite and sleep could take a hit.

Continual release of cortisol could also result in damaging the receptor sites that are present throughout the body as well as the death of neural cells.

If someone you know has been a victim of bullying or if you have faced it yourself, there are a bunch of things that can be done.

  • Oftentimes, we undermine these situations in our heads. Talk to someone—be it a counsellor, a friend, a family member or a psychologist. Talking to someone you trust will help you understand that what you are going through is a genuine problem. 
  • Maintain a diary/journal to keep a written record of incidents. This may prove vital in case you decide to take action later.
  • Chances are the organisation where you work/study has policies with regards to bullying. Keep yourself updated about these policies. 
  • As daunting as it might seem, you should consider taking action by escalating the matter to any higher authorities.

It is important to understand that to beat bullying, we have to realise that it is structural, and dismantling it will require consistent non-linear efforts. This can be done by enhancing the emotional and organizational environments in school and work environments by promoting sensitivity, mutual respect and tolerance to diversity.

Bullying needs to be prohibited and actively shunned. At the same time, organized response, including support of the victim and counselling for the bully by making him or her understand the harm they have inflicted needs to be mandated.
Doing so can help reduce disrupted student achievement and improve employee productivity that gets affected due to absenteeism and other costs related to loss of the very will to work/study at a premature stage.

During adolescence, the young brain is expanding at an incredible pace. Bullying may have been seen as a part of “character development” or indoctrination, especially in colleges, at one point. But brain research is helping to recast bullying as a serious form of trauma which causes lifelong structural and chemical changes in the brain.

Not all victims have long-term damage to their brains or changes in their behaviour, of course. But those who do may not just carry them for a lifetime but also pass them along as violent behaviour of some sort, which only propels this vicious cycle. Immediate intervention is required and help needs to be given to both the victim as well as the bully.

Dr. Naeem Shaikh

Dr. Naeem Shaikh

5 Years of Experience



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