New Research Says That Social Anxiety Or Bullying Can Inflame Your Brain And Lead To Depression

We all like a bit of a laugh, but there’s a fine line between banter and bullying, and you may not even realise that certain relationships in your life are having a toxic effect on your brain, bringing your mood down and potentially leading to depression – RSNG’s emotions expert Toby Ingham has the fix…

If you’ve ever had a bad cold then you won’t be surprised to hear that some of the symptoms are similar to depression. ‘When the body is in an inflammatory state, fighting off colds or flu, you can experience symptoms that are consistent with depression – low mood, sleep issues and problems concentrating,’ says psychotherapist Toby Ingham.

Now, scientists at Icahn School of Medicine, New York have found that social stresses caused by anxiety or bullying can lead to inflammation in the brain, which also alters your mood and makes you more susceptible to depression. First, social stress triggers inflammation in your bloodstream, which weakens the blood-brain barrier and lets through inflammatory substances like interleukin-6, and aggressive white blood cells. These mess with your ability to evaluate threats and rewards, making you vulnerable to further social stresses and powering up a vicious cycle.

So, how can we spot the signs that banter has gone bad, and could be making our brains unhealthy?

1. Notice When Your Mood Dips No one wants to think of themselves as being bullied. It suggests we might be weak, or lacking in courage, which makes us more likely to soak up any abuse masquerading as banter and just soldier on. But this is fertile ground for the long grass in which depression lurks.

‘We need to become better at spotting the low moods and depression we are having and to think about what that might relate to,’ says Ingham. So, be aware of how you feel day to day and how that relates to events in your life. ‘Evidence suggests that when we can make the links between events and the way our moods and emotions change then we can start to understand ourselves better. Then it can become possible to spot the bullying that is going on.’

Banter is excellent camouflage for someone who really does want to give you a hard time

2. Realise Fighting Fire With Fire Can Get You Burned There has always been a fine line between banter and bullying. Most of the time no real disrespect is meant but banter is excellent camouflage for someone who really does want to give you a hard time. ‘The thing with banter is that we’re supposed to try to give as good as you get. But this just furthers the rough, bullying banter,’ points out Ingham. ‘It’s a difficult line because you can really say anything that sounds abusive was, in fact, just banter.’

3. Know That Bullying Thrives On Secrecy Once you’ve realised that an individual’s behaviour is genuinely messing with your mojo, then you need to find someone to talk to about it. ‘We want to try to break the guilty cycle of secrecy and shame that goes with bullying. It’s a problem that people can feel very ashamed about and this increases their vulnerability and isolation,’ says Ingham. ‘We want to find a way of making the situation as public as we can, to build up confidence in speaking out. The more we do this, the more we take the oxygen away from the bullies’ flame. Speak out, put the bullies’ fire out.’

4. Make Your Workplace More Open Even if you aren’t personally being targeted by bullies you may run a workplace where it’s happening to others. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to make your operations systemically anti-bullying. ‘The more open and transparent we can make our environments, the more we can find constructive ways to speak about the conflicts and pressures that we are under. From this openness it follows that there is less likelihood of bullying, and the greater the chance is that we can be constructive, get lots done and build sustainable and happier workplaces,’ recommends Ingham.

5. Just Ignoring The Problem Won’t Make It Go Away Before schools got more serious about tackling bullying it was common advice to ‘just ignore the bullies’. As a long-term strategy this always did suck, and now science has confirmed it. ‘If we are in a pattern of stress and depression then it’s likely that we will become further sensitive to others’ behaviour. The only way of stopping this cycle is to stop the cycle,’ says Ingham. ‘Find ways of talking about it and confiding in another person, and trusting that doing this will lead to change.’

6. Watch Out For The Cycle Going Full Circle If you’ve ever experienced bullying, or have grown up as the dominant sibling, or in an alpha male environment, then the problem may be with you. Everyone is different and it’s not always easy to see if your apparently good natured banter is actually upsetting someone.

‘I think we should be prepared to listen to the feedback we get, to see the world as it is being reflected back to us,’ says Ingham. ‘If there is a sense is of us being demanding and unfair, then we should pay attention to that. We can find ourselves struggling to accommodate other people’s wishes, so I think we need to be able to be open as we can to ourselves, and just check our motives to ask ourselves: are we being fair or are we bullying?’

Standing up for ourselves is a very good way of stopping being seen as a target

7. Build Self-Confidence To Face Down Foes Standing up to a bully is often the best way to pull their teeth. But don’t be surprised if this demands more self-confidence than you possess, especially if it’s been affecting your mood. That’s why letting someone else know the situation and talking it through can provide vital moral support, and lend you strength. ‘It demands great self-confidence to stand up when you feel intimidated or are being bullied. If we can stand up for ourselves, like David facing Goliath, that’s a very good way of stopping ourselves being seen as a target.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch Clive Boddy’s Ted Talk on why workplace bullying – which ACAS estimates costs the UK economy £18 billion every year – is more common than you think...

Toby Ingham is a UKCP registered psychotherapist, member of The Guild of Psychotherapists and The Association of Psychotherapists

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations

Follow the writer @mattfitnessray