Children who are victims of bullying often suffer a sense of helplessness. They don’t know what to do during bullying episodes and they don’t really believe anything will change or anyone can intervene effectively. Children subjected to bullying say it makes them feel sick, afraid, and helpless. It can also lead to feelings of anxiety, anger and depression. We know that as adults former victims can undergo similar feelings in the right circumstances.
Due to my research in the area of childhood bullying, I am contacted by many people about their own bullying incidents as children. They describe how they coped at the time. Often, they comment on how they’ve managed their lives in the wake of bullying. The great majority have survived and gone on to live productive lives. However, during this world-wide COVID-19 crisis, adults relate that their mental state is similar to how they felt as children. I have received messages describing the reactivation of childhood memories of being captive to someone while feeling powerless. In the face of the uncertainty generated by the coronavirus, the same emotions are rekindled: fear, anxiety, anger, and a certain amount of depression. While most are doing what they can in terms of preparedness and health precautions, helplessness is once again a prevailing emotion. Substance abuse held at bay has reemerged as a problem.
By this point, perhaps the majority of people are aware of a sense of helplessness while trying to outwait and outwit COVID-19 by using every best effort. It is a helpless feeling to see the numbers of deaths and to witness the struggles in the healthcare system. While everyone may feel some amount of anxiety related to the virus, survivors of bullying experience a heightened degree of fear, anxiety, and depression based on triggered childhood feelings. Helplessness is a familiar but unwelcome manifestation impacting their daily mood. Sheltering-in-place is difficult emotionally in general. But for victims of childhood bullying it is reminiscent of and activates the loneliness that was an everyday burden.
Trauma is an aspect of this health crisis. The loss of family and friends, and the fear of their loss, is overwhelming. Trauma results when such overwhelming stress exceeds one’s ability to cope. There are three distinct types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex. Acute trauma describes what people are living through now, meaning the trauma is the result of a single event- the corona virus. Trauma can become chronic depending on the duration of an event; in this case how long people are required to shelter-in-place with all the problems attendant to that (loss of income, lack of childcare, family violence, etc.). Chronic bullying is traumatizing for children and it leads to changes in the brains’ ability to think clearly. At the very least, bullied children worry and their worries influence their actions. They try to hide and they learn to avoid their bullies. They often become worried, anxious adults. For those who endured bullying victimization as children, the trauma is complex. Those adults deal with childhood trauma and its effects in an ongoing way. Now they are dealing with the very personal nature of the fear of the virus as well.
Children can do very little when they are helpless. They don’t have the tools, the wisdom, the resources, or the maturity needed to ameliorate adverse childhood conditions. Adults by virtue of greater years, greater resources, and greater mental capacity are able, much of the time, to deal with difficult circumstances. But COVID-19 extracts its toll despite wisdom, years, or great resources. The virus is an equalizer in this respect. It exerts power over its victims. It is relentless in pursuing a host to control. It searches for any weakness to exploit. COVID-19 acts exactly like a bully. For those who have already been a victim in childhood, this new terror is another bully forcing people to stay inside hiding from its power. In this way, victims of childhood bullying, even with their adult resources, are revisited by an age-old sense of helplessness unique to them.
For adults intimidated and threatened throughout childhood, helplessness is not new. It has come back again in the shape of something even more powerful and intimidating.