Nicha Angkanawin, RCC
Fight, flight, freeze or people-please! How does your body respond to bullying?
Bullying & harassment can happen in many forms; physical, verbal, social, or electronic, and it can be very serious and damaging to our well-being. Learning what is going on inside our body when encountering threatening situations can help us recognize our body’s reactions, and allow us to learn skills to help us slow down our reactions and engage in responding instead of reacting.
When we encounter harassment and bullying, our brain detects threats and it activates a part of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of getting the body ready to jump into action to deal with the threat. This system is responsible for some of the symptoms we experience when we feel anxious or afraid such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, increased rate of breathing, dilated pupils, and slowed down digestion. All of these physiological changes are experienced because they help us be better prepared to react to threats.
We experience an automatic reaction to threats which might look like fight, flight, freeze and people-please. Which threat reaction we automatically use depends on many factors such as upbringing, and what options are available to us.
The part of brain that is responsible for more complex thinking goes offline during a threat response; all mental capacity goes towards survival. This is why we might experience difficulty thinking when we feel anxious. You can see that this system is instinctive and necessary. We do need it to survive, however, it is not always accurate or helpful to our every day life.
Our brain reacts the same way whether the threat is real or perceived. It cannot tell the difference between a wild lion running at you or perhaps public speaking or failing a test. This is why learning skills and teaching our brain to differentiate the types of threat can be very useful to our everyday life.
However, in the moment of threat as mentioned above, parts of our brain go offline so we can focus on surviving. This is not the time that we can expect our brain to solve a complex problem or make the best decisions. When we find ourselves in an unexpected threatening situation like bullying and harassment, just focus on keeping yourself safe by walking away if possible or saying stop firmly and calmly to the harasser if safe to do so.
After the threatening situation has passed, we can then start taking action to calm our nervous system down so we are back to the baseline again. For example: talking to a friend, listening to calm music and engaging in breathing exercises. The part of our nervous system that brings us back to calm baseline is called the parasympathetic nervous system.
Traumatic experiences can impact our wellbeing for the long-term. Working on the impact that it has on ourselves over time may look like:
Learn to process thoughts and emotions. There are different ways of doing this. Some folks like to write a reflective journal. By writing a thought journal, we can notice our thoughts and thinking patterns so we can identify any unhelpful thoughts and negative interpretations that might keep us stuck. We then can learn to reframe or challenge them.
Learn to establish healthy boundaries. This includes learning more about what your boundaries are and how to communicate with others through non-violent communication (i.e. using I-Statements).
Learn to develop a kind and compassionate relationship with self.
Bullying and harassment can be very traumatic to some folks. The emotions that you might be experiencing are normal reactions, whether it is fear, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, sadness or anger. Working through these emotions can be challenging but keep in mind you don’t have to do it alone. There are many organizations out here in the North Shore and the greater Vancouver that offer support specifically to LGBTQIA2S+ folks. Did you know that the rate of discrimination experienced by LGBTQIA2S+ youth is 3x higher than cis heterosexual youth? And among those who report being bullied, there is 3x greater odds of a suicide attempt.
Tips for Handling Cyber Bullying
1. Take a screenshot of the harassing
comments or messages for evidence.
2. Don’t participate or retaliate. You might
still be in the threat response mode and
unable to think clearly about your
actions. Plus this just perpetuates the
3. Block the harasser.
4. Report the harassment to a trusted
adult or to the website. Some
harassment can be very serious and you
might need to bring the matter to the
5. Process your experience by talking to a
friend, a trusted adult, or a
professional. You are not alone.
Nicha Angkanawin, RCC (They/Them) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor practicing at North Shore CBT Centre. Nicha has years of experience supporting LGBTQIA2S+ youth and young adults going through and overcoming challenges related to anxiety, self-doubt, perfectionism, negative thoughts and life-limiting beliefs. Born and raised in Thailand until the age of 15 before moving to North America as an international student, Nicha brings their lived experience as a nonbinary individual building self-acceptance, developing a sense of belonging as well as building new connections including a chosen family into their practice. If you are interested in connecting with Nicha for consultation or counselling, please feel free to reach out Nicha@northshorecbt.com.