An immediate yet largely unknown effect of bullying

One of the ways that bullying affects lives

Bullying experiences cause us to have a variety of different emotions – we all know that.  Whether that is anger, sadness, hurt, disappointment, fear, anxiety, panic, or some other emotion that we just want to go away.  We may tell someone, a friend, a teacher or a parent in the hopes that they will intervene and the bullying will stop, however, the emotion tends to remain.

Most people talk about being triggered at some later stage, where we are reminded of the event i some way and physically experience the distressing emotions all over again, but today, I want to discuss something I have never heard anyone talk about in relation to bullying.


Have you ever had an argument with someone and got angry, but then after the argument has finished and your have sorted your disagreement, the slightest thing will set you off again?  Couples are often pretty aware of this!

Or maybe you have heard or experienced that good or bad luck comes in threes – although many people also say it comes in four and even fives too.

So what is this about and what has it go to do with bullying?

It’s called the ‘Emotional Refractory Period’ or being in and “Emotional Refractory State’.

Dr Paul Eckman, psychologist explains this concept as “a period of time which accompanies an emotion, during which our mind rejects or ignore any reasonable interpretations or advice that isn’t congruent with our own view points.  Whilst still in the refractory period, we are unable to think clearly or appreciate alternate view points or interpretations that well meaning people may offer.

He also says “Emotions change how we see the world.  During a refractory state, we evaluate what is happening in a way that is consistent with the emotion we are feeling, thus justifying and maintaining the emotion.”

 This is not something that we do consciously.  Our logical and conscious mind is no longer in control during this time and it is not uncommon for us to say or do something during this period that we later regret.  It is also common that during this time, we cannot access certain solutions that may be better for us, that we could at another time.  

In the context of bullying therefore, simply talking to someone who is in the emotional refractory state, does very little, if any to ease their emotional pain, because they cannot accept anything other than the way that their mind is thinking about the situation at that time.  It is like, anything that is not in agreement, simply won’t get through to them.  

In education, the process after reporting bullying is often to sit down and give a statement about what occurred.  Whilst this is necessary to help gather information to put an end to the bullying, it does nothing to ease the trauma they experienced or the help the student out of the emotional refractory state.  If anything, this simply maintains the emotion or triggers the student, adding to and prolonging their distress.  

Once the statement has been given, the teacher may attempt to reassure the student, or provide some form of explanation, however as Dr Eckman explained, regardless of how much sense it makes, or how true it may be, this cannot get through if it is not in line with the student’s current point of view, so basically falls on deaf ears.  Chances are the student will just agree, because they feel they should but still harbour the same thoughts and feelings as before the conversation.  

Because nothing has been done to change the mindset of the student, from the emotional refractory state to one that is calm, relaxed, feeling safe and able to regain focus on something other than how they are feeling, when the student is then sent back to their lessons, they are not in the in a frame of mind that is conducive to learning at their full potential.  They are not able to give their full attention, absorb and work out the information provided and allow their mind to be fully present with the task at hand.    

The emotional refractory state varies in length and can last a few seconds to days or weeks and so has a massive impact on the life of the person experiencing.  This longer and more frequently someone remains in this state, the more likely it is to become a more permanent state of mind.  One of the problems with this occurring, is that whilst in this state, making decisions, especially big, life altering ones, should be avoided, because these decisions are often ones are emotionally based and regretted, especially if the state is a ‘negative’ one.  This can tend to make whatever we are deciding seem more difficult,  more hopeless or more depressing than they would otherwise seem if we were not experiencing life through this temporary emotional filter.

For someone who is being bullied, a fear emotion may be experienced and whilst in the emotional refractory state, they may find other thing and interpret them in a way that make them fearful of that too, even if it is something that they wouldn’t usually be scare of.  This could work to prolong the emotional refractory period, as we as causing them to continue to interpret even more events in a fearful manner, leading to a downward spiral.  

If a student then goes into a lesson that is watching the news and seeing unpleasant occurrences around the world, this could have profound effects on their feelings of safety and their mental health, because of their current vulnerable state to anything fearful.  Even returning to the same environment, knowing the person that had bullied them will be there, can create more fear and anything that the bully says or does is likely to be interpreted as some form of threat and a reason to be scared.  It is no wonder that students that have been bullied can become terrified of returning to school and experience anxiety, panic attacks and depression, if they have not dealt with the initial emotional experience.

One solution to this problem, would be to work with the person that has been bullied and as quickly as possible, deal with the emotional trauma.  The delays between the experience and emotional recovery cause a lot of issues, especially since some people never actually get any emotional assistance and the effects of bullying is with them for the rest of their life.  Whilst there are a number of tools that could be used in the immediate aftermath of bullying that can assist emotionally and to change the mindset and state to one more suitable to what is being done, Tapping is one of my favourites.  It can be done discreetly, quickly, and by the students themselves, but whatever method that is used, this is an area that we need to really look at helping those who have been bullied get through to minimise the trauma that they experience.

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