Shame, rejection, and exclusion are painful—as are any injuries that send you to an Emergency Room. School hallways, no less than family holidays, can inflame (age-old) distressing patterns, so watch for these symptoms, and know that there are home remedies that can help address them:
- Cognitive Disruption. Like pain caused by bodily harm, bullying—social pain—interferes with your ability to “think straight.” You can’t ace an algebra test (or get through a family dinner) when your shoulder—or your social status—has been dislocated.
- Limited Ability to Self-Regulate. Have you ever heard someone yell %@#!* after stubbing their toe, or pick up and hurl the heavy object that fell on their foot? The impulse behind such reactiveness is no different than the one that overcomes the boy called a "fag," the girl taunted for her weight (or hair, or nose, or mouth), or the family member subjected to snide comments by relatives.
- Inability to Empathize with Others. When you walk into an emergency room, you want to know how soon you will be attended to. Nursing an injury, you lack the capacity to feel bad for the other people waiting ahead of you. Similarly, after being taunted and teased by peers/family members, you are unable to feel bad for the troubles besetting your sister, or the pain you may cause to those around you by the desperate act(s) that cross your mind. Your own pain overrides any ability to empathize.
- Take some acetaminophen. Because bullying lights up the same pain circuitry in the brain as does any physical injury, taking Tylenol can actually reduce the hurt you are feeling. This should NOT become a daily curative. However, sometimes an analgesic, or "pain-killer" is enough to allow you to regain an ability to "carry on" in your usual fashion (perhaps, in this case, by reducing the swelling of inflamed emotions?)
- Initiate a chat through an online resource site. Reaching out to "Ask a Doctor" or "Ask a Nurse" for support is no different than connecting with the HelpChat Line available at Stomp Out Bullying, the Anti-Violence Project Hotline, or chat-lines at YouthSpace, the Trevor Project, or RemovingChains. There are people who are there to help you, to listen and be supportive—but you need to reach out.
- Modify the attention you give over to your injury. This is NOT AT ALL to say "ignore it and it will go away." However, anyone who has been hurt while playing sports—or who has watched a professional athlete be helped off the playing field/court—knows the impulse to override the pain and “play through it.” When your attention is fully engaged with something else, pain is minimized. So shift your focus. Walk away, and put your attention on something you like/care about (or turn to a different relative and talk about the new series you have been watching, or a recent project, concert, or vacation). Interrupt the cognitive and emotional reactions that threaten to take over by refusing to privilege the pain—though of course, you must monitor the injury/your healing over the next days.
- Change the expectations surrounding the injury. This is NOT AT ALL to say “chin up, shoulders back, no crying.” Rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that expectations can overly-sensitize us to a negative stimulus,whether that stimulus is a gash on the arm or a comment that seems snide and hurtful. Think of it this way: when you are not predisposed to feel acute discomfort at having blood drawn, you perceive little more than a pinch. But when you anxiously picture the needle/blood, even the rubber strap making your veins bulge creates bodily sensations of distress.
An expectation can be a large part of the pain that is experienced.
Translation: when you assume that everyone is going to agree with the stupid rumor a peer is spreading, or concur with the snarky comment your relative just made, you anticipate shame and rejection. Predisposed to social pain, you become anxious over glances in the cafeteria or laughter at the other end of the table. Try expecting silent compassion—everyone knows your peer/relative is an attention-mongering gossip; a jerk they mentally shrug their shoulders at (likely not believing, or invested in, whatever s/he is saying).
- Get a second opinion. When you suffer bodily injury, it is not unusual to show the wound to someone—a teacher, parent, colleague or friend—and ask them to assess its severity (or help staunch the blood, splint the finger, mitigate the harm done). And, while it is not likely you will turn to someone and ask their opinion of the psychic pain you are feeling, you might ask their opinion of the dynamic that produced the wound: "Why do you think s/he would make such a nasty comment about me?" Their opinion might surprise you—and help mitigate the harm done.
- Treat yourself. Many doctors used to give lollipops to young children who were hurt and needed their services (and you got to pick the flavor!) Do something nice for yourself—you’ve earned it; you deserve it.
- Finally, take back your power by acting (as opposed to reacting). One of the most effective things you can do is engage in a random act of kindness. Shift the focus from your pain by making someone smile. You will feel better by doing this, and you will interrupt the cognitive and emotional reactions disrupting your well-being (although you may still not be able to ace the algebra test or empathize with your sister’s troubles). There may be no proverbial ‘little old lady to help across the street,’ but no matter where you live, you can find stressed/disgruntled people (just go to the mall). Smile. Let them in line in front of you. Compliment a stranger—or give an approving nod to something they are doing/purchasing. Go out and create connections to others—even a passing connection—and you will be surprised at how it modifies your feelings of pain.
Remember: injuries become infected if they are not cleaned and carefully bandaged, so it is important to care for your psychic wounds, and not let them fester. You should no more ignore the gash on your arm than the damage to your sense of self-caused by cruelties on the bus/around the family table.
So carefully evaluate your wounds (paper cuts can hurt much more than a concussion, but we all know which is the more serious injury). If you are bullied, you may not be in the best position to assess your injuries, put the damage in perspective, and determine a course of action for healing. Asking for help does not make you a crybaby.
Cultural norms still make most victims reluctant to let anyone see their pain, so you may ignore the hurt/play through the situation. This should not preclude assessing the damage once you are off the playing field, or monitoring the wound in the oncoming days. Try a home remedy or two, but do not hesitate to ask for help if pain/rage/depression continues to dominate your waking hours. Home remedies are courses of action that can mitigate the severity of an injury, but whether this is only a temporary lessening of a deeper, underlying wound, or enough to facilitate healing is a determination that cannot be made in the moment. Sometimes home remedies do the trick. Sometimes they have no effect, at which time it is important to speak with a (mental) health care professional.
We often think that if we cannot see blood we are not gravely injured and in need of attention, but nothing could be further from the truth. Take care of yourself, and of those around you who are in pain.