Adult bullying: Survey finds 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult
Bullying doesn’t always end with high school. Some lunchroom bullies grow up to become office bullies.
A recent survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association found that adults are being bullied at levels similar to adolescents, and the health consequences may be reducing Americans’ ability to function.
The online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, conducted in October, found 31 percent of Americans have been bullied as an adult and many (43%) say the behavior has become more accepted this past year. The survey defined bullying as being subjected to repeated, negative behavior intended to harm or intimidate.
The health impact of bullying in America
Victims of bullying reported significant negative impacts on their health. The poll found of those who have been bullied as an adult:
- 71% suffer from stress
- 70% experience anxiety/depression
- 55% report a loss of confidence
- 39% suffer from sleep loss, 26% have headaches and 22% experience muscle tension or pain
- 19% reported a mental breakdown
- 17% noted an inability to function day-to-day, i.e. calling in sick frequently
Other health responses to the emotional strain induced by bullying include gastrointestinal changes, nausea, elevated blood pressure and cardiovascular issues, according to osteopathic physicians.
Typically understood to be a problem children face and outgrow, the new findings show that bullying, and its subsequent impact on mental and physical health, continues long into adulthood—often in the workplace, home and educational setting.
How to identify adult bullying
The poll found a quarter of adults (25%) have experienced the ”silent treatment” from an individual or group on a repeated basis as an adult, while about 1 in 5 (21%) have had someone spread lies about them that no one refutes.
“Bullying is a coping strategy used to assert control when faced with personal limitations, whether intellectual, physical or otherwise,” said Charles Sophy, DO, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and medical director for the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services. “A bully gains power in a relationship by reducing another’s, and shows little regard for the consequences to a victim’s health or well-being.”
Behavior from adult bullies is more subtle and sophisticated than what a child might employ, according to Dr. Sophy. Gaslighting is a common yet poorly understood tactic in which a person makes a victim question their own reality. This controlling behavior is done slowly over time through small manipulative words or actions. The victim begins to doubt their memory, judgement and abilities, ultimately limiting their ability to confidently perform tasks in the workplace or their personal life.
“If you feel your power being diminished by another, it’s time to question the health of the relationship,” said Dr. Sophy. “Bullies operate everywhere and can be partners, professors, colleagues or grown children.”
Recovering from a bully
The first step in recovery is acknowledging the problem. Adults who are unsure if they’re being bullied should try describing the situation as if it were happening to someone else. “If a friend told you this story, how would you react? You can see the situation more clearly if you remove yourself from the story,” Dr. Sophy advises.
Dr. Sophy recommends patients spend time reviewing common bullying tactics in order to identify and inventory the inflicted behaviors. The list can be used to develop a roadmap to confront the perpetrator or to formalize a complaint.
A medical professional can support the healing process by treating conditions onset by bullying, including loss of sleep, anxiety and depression. Patients may also benefit from counseling to cope with the effects of bullying.
“As an osteopathic physician, I offer victims help for their mental, physical and emotional symptoms,” said Jennifer Caudle, DO, a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University-School of Osteopathic Medicine. “I work with patients to improve their sleep and prescribe self-care like exercise, meditation, journaling, and prioritizing sleep to improve their overall quality of life.”
You can’t always beat a bully, cautions Dr. Sophy, but the long-term consequences of being a victim are significant. If direct confrontation doesn’t change the bully’s behavior, he urges victims to find a way out of that situation and relationship.
“A clear takeaway from this poll is bullying is not limited to children,” says Sophy. “As physicians and as bystanders, we must proactively confront the problem or it will continue to damage the emotional and physical health of our nation.”