Childhood Bullying = Adult PTSD?

Any bullying is a devastating occurrence in someone’s life. But, are you aware that participating in bullying, either as the bully or the victim, can lead to severe health issues as an adult? Studies have proven that either the victim or the bully can both develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in adulthood. 

This can cause all many different mental and physical health issues as an adult. It has been associated with chronic medical problems and can reduce the overall quality of life. PTSD is considered to be a disability by the Social Security Administration and the military because it can be debilitating.

Just as victims might grow up to have issues later in life, bullies can also encounter problems. Studies have shown that children who grew up as bullies were 60 percent more likely to have a criminal conviction by 24. A bully is also five times more likely than a victim to have a serious criminal record in adulthood (Lloyd, 2012). 

According to Dr. Dewar, who has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, children who bully are more likely to develop “antisocial personality disorder” — a condition that is colloquially known as “sociopaths” or “psychopathy” (2020). These children have little respect for the rights of other people. They exhibit what psychologists call “callous/unemotional” traits: showing little emotions, failing to use empathy, and lacking feelings of guilt or remorse (Dewar, 2020).

It might be helpful for you to know what the definition of PTSD is. According to, it is a “common anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a terrifying event or even a long term series of events ( C-PTSD ) in which grave physical harm occurred or threatened. Family members of victims can also develop the disorder. PTSD can occur in people of any age, including children and adolescents.

More than twice as many women as men experience PTSD following exposure to trauma. Depression, alcohol, or other substance abuse frequently co-occur with PTSD. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are four categories for PTSD symptoms: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions; symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.

Intrusive memories

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event

Symptoms of avoidance may include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event.
  • Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Adverse changes in thinking and mood
  • Symptoms of adverse changes in thinking and mood may include:
  • Negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or the world
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships.
  • Feeling detached from family and friends.
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions

Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:

  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Always being on guard for danger.
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability, angry outbursts, or aggressive behavior
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • For children six years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include:
  • Re-enacting the traumatic event or aspects of the traumatic event through play
  • Frightening dreams that may or may not include aspects of the traumatic event (2018)

PTSD in The Workplace

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a terrifying event in anyone’s life. It can have a seriously debilitating effect on someone at any age. But it is most commonly associated with military personnel, although not exclusively. In addition, the level of bullying, due to how often the individual has been exposed to hostile acts at work, display a more robust interconnection with distress and PTSD than a more unspecified, subjective measure of bullying, along with the time since the bullying took place and how long the bullying was (Matthiesen & Einarson, 2010).

According to Sharie Stines, Psy.D, workplace bullying can be a challenging situation, even for someone with a strong constitution. When you find yourself on the receiving end of workplace bullying, you could end up getting fired or quitting, even though the bullying was not your fault. 

You might feel ashamed, or embarrassed, or even anxious or depressed. You now have to worry about how to explain to your friends or family what happened. This alone can cause you to develop PTSD. You are now forced to deal with all of this in addition to having to try to find a new job, which can be overwhelming since you did nothing wrong (2017).

What makes this even more difficult is just like in grade school. There is the chance that none of your friends or co-workers will stand up for you. The people that you thought were your friends suddenly abandoned you. They either want to look good to the bully, or they are just too afraid that they might lose their job (Stines, 2017). This is particularly true if the bully is someone with authority.

It’s a multiple-whammy; you are devastated emotionally, socially, physically, vocationally, and financially. Unless you have experienced this personally, you have no idea how traumatizing workplace scapegoating can be to a person (Stines, 2017). Now you have an additional emotional issue to deal with through no fault of your own.

Complex PTSD

There is a second type of PTSD that is called Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD for short. A Harvard researcher originated this term in 1988. According to the article, Complex PTSD develops due to chronic traumatization over a long period. This can include emotional, physical, sexual abuses, domestic violence, living in a war zone, being held captive, human trafficking, and other organized abuse rings.

When an adult experiences a traumatic event, they better understand what is happening, their place as a victim and should seek support even if they don’t want to. Children don’t possess most of these skills yet, or “even the ability to separate themselves from another person’s unconscionable actions.” 

The psychological and developmental implications that develop into who that child believes themselves to be — creating “a messy web of core beliefs much harder to untangle than the flashbacks, nightmares and other post-traumatic symptoms that come later” ( Complex PTSD can be much more difficult for a child to deal with.

According to, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs describes C-PTSD as “resulting from chronic trauma that the victim cannot escape.” However, C-PTSD contains symptoms that PTSD alone does not accurately describe. 

For example, the sufferer with C-PTSD can have problems with emotional regulation (“persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, explosive anger, or inhibited anger”), problems with consciousness (dissociative amnesia, dissociative flashbacks, or depersonalization), problems with self-perception (“helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings”). 

It can also include distorted perceptions of the perpetrator (“attributing total power to the perpetrator, becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, or [becoming] preoccupied with revenge“), problems with relationships to others (“isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer”), and issues with one’s system of meanings (“a loss of [one’s] faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair”)(Complex PTSD, 2013).

In addition to mental and emotional symptoms, individuals with C-PTSD are vulnerable to many somatic symptoms, including neck pain, back pain, and headaches (including migraines). 

They may also be at a higher risk for gastrointestinal problems (including irritable bowel syndrome); allergies; thyroid and other endocrine disorders; chronic fatigue syndrome; and a condition called fibromyalgia which involves widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and problems with sleep, memory, and mood (Kolk, 2001). 

In addition, trauma, which causes C-PTSD, can trigger or exacerbate existing chronic illnesses or genetic vulnerabilities such as those responsible for autoimmune diseases (including rheumatoid arthritis)(2008).

How to recognize C-PTSD?

According to WebMD, the symptoms of Complex PTSD have some of the same symptoms of PTSD. But they also have these additional factors:

Problems with self-esteem. “Those with complex PTSD may feel worthless or blame themselves for their trauma. They may believe bad things happen because of something in them.”

Emotional dysfunction. “Those with complex PTSD often experience intense emotions, which are sometimes inappropriate. Besides anger and sadness, they may feel like they’re living in a dream. They may have trouble feeling happy.”

Relationship problems. “Complex PTSD can make it difficult to trust others. Some people stay in unhealthy relationships because the situation is familiar. If their trauma involved abuse, their feelings about their abuser may be complicated. Or they may obsess about their abuser or focus on revenge” (Contributors).

Is C-PTSD the same as BPD?

According to the study results, the findings supported that Complex PTSD was distinguishable from BPD. In addition, “Key symptoms that distinguished between the disorders were identified, which may aid in differential diagnosis and treatment planning” (Cloitre et al., 2014).

Complex PTSD is a relatively recent concept. Because of its variable nature, healthcare professionals may instead diagnose another condition. They may be especially likely to diagnose Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Some researchers have identified Trusted Source areas of substantial overlap between complex PTSD and BPD.” Here are some of the ways that C-PTSD is different from PTSD. 

  • Behavioral difficulties (e.g. impulsivity, aggressiveness, sexual acting out, alcohol/drug misuse and self-destructive behavior)
  • Emotional difficulties (e.g. affect lability, rage, depression and panic)
  • Cognitive difficulties (e.g. dissociation and pathological changes in personal identity)
  • Interpersonal difficulties (e.g. chaotic personal relationships)
  • Somatization (resulting in many visits to medical practitioners)

However, the conditions may also have differences. Authors of a study from 2014Trusted Source reported that, for example, people with complex PTSD had consistently negative self-conceptions, while people with BPD had self-conceptions that were unstable and changing.

Extremely Harmful

To give you an idea of how devastating bullying can be when you are young, research has shown that the bullying and harassment you endure as a young person can cause PTSD symptoms that “surpass physical abuse, neglect, and exposure to community violence.” 

Other research has shown that childhood victims of bullying can demonstrate a level that is “57% higher than is needed to diagnose PTSD as an adult.” In addition, several studies show that as much as 75% of the population who are bullied as a child will develop not only mental problems as an adult but possibly Complex PTSD, which has a whole new set of additional issues associated with it. (Arzt, 2019).

If the person with C-PTSD also has OCD. The continued bullying will make the symptoms associated with OCD even worse. 

The typical symptoms that develop due to bullying, feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, anger, and fear, are strongly associated with PTSD (Arzt, 2019). This makes it far more likely that it would trigger an episode of PTSD. Even though PTSD is typically associated with military veterans, it can develop in almost anyone that has suffered emotional or physical trauma. A seriously harmful sexual trauma like rape can even cause it. These can all lead to severe issues with your mental health.

Issues with mental health, especially if they’re chronic, can be overwhelming. Your body can have a physical response to depression or anxiety much as it does to physical illness; sometimes, mental health problems can be caused by a physical ailment. If you think you have a mental problem, you should visit your primary care doctor first (Saling).

Your doctor will ask questions to narrow down the causes: your symptoms, how long you’ve had them, and whether they are constant or come and go. Then, your doctor will check for anything physical that could be causing your symptoms and “help you decide what type of mental health professional and what kind of therapy might be best for you” (Saling). But, to get a diagnosis of PTSD or Complex PTSD, you will need to see someone who has special training in recognizing the symptoms of each one.


Lloyd, D. (2012, May 14). What happens when bullies become adults?: The new bullying. The New Bullying | Anti-bullying facts, strategies, stories, and statistics by Michigan State University journalism students. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from

Dewar, G. (2021, May 10). Bullying in children: The road to psychopathology? PARENTING SCIENCE. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from

Marks, J. (Ed.). (2021, June 3). Medical definition of post-traumatic stress disorder. RxList. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2018, July 6). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from
Matthiesen, S., & Einarson, S. (2010). Psychiatric distress and symptoms of PTSD among victims of bullying at work. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from
Stines, S. (2017, July 30). The trauma of workplace bullying. Psych Central. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from
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Contributors, W. M. D. E. (n.d.). What is complex PTSD? The symptoms are caused by chronic trauma. WebMD. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from
Cloitre, M., Garvert, D. W., Weiss, B., Carlson, E. B., & Bryant, R. A. (2014, September 15). Distinguishing PTSD, Complex PTSD, and borderline personality disorder: A latent class analysis. European journal of psychotraumatology. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from

Authored by Nicole Arzt, M. S. (2019, June 13). Can being a victim of long-term bullying lead to PTSD later in life? American Addiction Centers. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from

Saling, J. (n.d.). Psychiatry, psychology, counseling, and therapy: What to expect. WebMD. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from

Authored by: Marylene Cloitre et al., 2014 Distinguishing PTSD, Complex PTSD, and Borderline Personality Disorder: A latent class analysis. Retrieved November 2, 2021

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