Peer abuse or workplace bullying is a widely used term to describe the intentional and repeated emotional, verbal or physical harassment of an individual by one or more colleagues. It can vary from subtle intimidation or humiliation expressed through body language, criticisms, insults or sarcastic remarks, to the more obvious offensive language and physical assault. It will often occur in front of other colleagues, management, or customers.
What are the effects of bullying?
When we are the victim of bullying our stress response can become activated. As stress hormones are released throughout the body our heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, we might experience chest pains, feel hot or cold, and perspire more than usual. We can become tongue-tied, feel flustered, and struggle to communicate effectively. Our thoughts become jumbled or ‘foggy’, we can find it difficult to concentrate and make decisions. We may start to avoid those people or situations at work that trigger the stress response.
Why is it that some of us appear to be able to cope with stressors, like bullying, whilst others do not?
The short answer – It is the interaction of our life experiences and our genes that determine our resilience or vulnerability to stress in adulthood.
Early life experiences have the capacity to switch on /off the expression of our genes that are associated with the stress response. For instance, if we experience stress early on in life we are more likely to switch on the gene that makes us more vulnerable to stress and learn maladaptive coping strategies – such as avoidance – when faced with stress. Avoidance behaviours can include excessive use of media devices and technology, substance and alcohol abuse, emotional eating, over-sleeping, and compulsive shopping. Although these behaviours appear to relieve or distract us from the stress in the short-term, in the long-term they act to increase our sensitivity to the stress response and reduce our ability to cope with any future stressors.
Growing up in a safe and secure relationship makes us more resilient to stress, allowing us to problem-solve our way through stressors like bullying. Adaptive coping strategies are behaviours that use our ‘smart brain’ – our logical, rational, thinking brain – in order to reduce the body’s stress response. Some examples include sharing our story with a trusted support person, processing our story by writing in a journal, engaging in hobbies that we usually find interesting, physical activity and exercise, and meditation and deep breathing.
Why does that matter – I can’t change the impact of my early life experiences or genes, can I?
Yes, you can.
The brain is “plastic” – we can change the wiring of our brain by doing and thinking differently.
If the brain couldn’t be changed, you would never have learned to ride a bike as a child or learned to drive a car as an adult. Every new skill you develop, piece of knowledge that you gain, or memory that you can recall is evidence that you have changed and re-wired your brain.
Learning to change your response (re-wiring your brain) to stress is also possible. But just like when we learned to drive a car, it takes practice. A lot of practice.
We can speed up our learning by practicing adaptive behaviours when we are in a relaxed state of mind and in a comfortable environment. Our learning is also enhanced by practicing these behaviours daily.
If we have practiced these behaviours regularly, we will be more successful at adopting them in times of stress. In other words, we will learn to experience comfort in situations that are uncomfortable, allowing us to think clearly, make effective decisions, and communicate our needs.
So, how can I use these strategies to cope with workplace bulling?
- Talk to someone – perhaps a trusted colleague at work, a friend or family member.
- Seek professional support – such as a GP or Psychologist – they can assist with problem-solving in addition to understanding how to increase your resilience to workplace stressors.
- Identify and follow any workplace policies and grievance procedures regarding workplace bullying.
- Engage in regular physical activity, eat a balanced diet and participate in hobbies that you usually enjoy.