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Why Bullying Leads to Burnout

Polyvagal research shows how we can get our energy back.

Key points

  • We are seeing high levels of burnout in the workplace and student disengagement in schools and sports.
  • Stressed out people are far more likely to resort to aggressive bullying or abusive behaviors.
  • Research into how critically important a feeling of safety is can help us de-stress and re-energize.

In a society rife with normalized bullying, it’s hardly surprising that teachers, medical health professionals, prison guards, and many others are suffering from burnout. Bullying and abuse infect the cyberworld, school cultures, sports, and arts programs. It's gotten so bad that advocates are striving to see laws in place that require institutions to maintain “psychological safety.” The key word here is safety.

In order to flourish, learn, problem-solve, be creative, innovative, compassionate and energized, our brains and bodies need safety. Let’s look at the research on how to keep ourselves feeling safe so that we can create workplaces, schools, sports, and arts organizations that prioritize non-bullying environments in order to see a return of engagement, motivation, empathy, and high energy.

While bullying and abuse divide, safety hinges on connection. While bullying and abuse aim to shame and drive a target into isolation, our brain, body, and nervous system crave belonging and community. Psychologist Stephen Porges’ research shows that we evolved as mammals whose survival depends on being a part of a group, and this belonging is exactly what gets targeted by bullying and abuse. When we belong, we feel safe. When we are threatened by a constant barrage of unsafe attacks—from subtle ones to full-on violations—we become drained of the energy we need for our basic survival.

What does polyvagal theory teach us about our need for safety?

Porges’ polyvagal theory is built on decades of research into how our nervous system—essentially the way our brains and bodies communicate—responds to interpersonal, internal, and environmental cues about safety and danger. Porges refers to this unconscious system with the term he coined “neuroception.” Neuro is Greek for nerve, and Porges uses it to describe the way cranial nerves, specifically the vagus nerve, perceive safety and danger.

In order to maintain our energy, we need to be in a homeostatic state of safety. The reason we suffer burnout is that we never get the time to recover, especially from stressors related to interpersonal threats. In fact, we’re in such as state of hypervigilance due to feeling unsafe that we rarely reach homeostasis, which Porges says is “necessary for our bodies to properly heal and recuperate.”

If our neuroception reads the environment as non-threatening, then it allows us to harness all of our other brain and body functions that are vital for productivity and health. In contrast, if our neuroception reads the environment as threatening, it can respond in two ways, according to Porges’ research: it can activate the fight and flight stress response—which requires a great deal of energy—or it can activate the freeze response—which is like an abrupt energy-drop from a holistic self to a dissociated one or from a living being into one that “plays dead.”

There is another automatic survival response in Porges’ research, which he refers to as “fawning and appeasement.” These behaviors explain the individuals in bullying and abuse situations who take the bystander role when someone or some group is being targeted. They frequently benefit by defending the abusive individual, receiving opportunities by ignoring or dismissing the harm being done to targets. In well-established bullying dynamics, the abusive individual uses power, prestige, and credibility to harm others while those who are fawning remain protected, as well as get rewards. All reactions are attempts to find safety in an unsafe environment. All parties can easily become burnt out as a result.

When we go to work and are respected, are treated with fairness and humanity, when we are at school and can trust students and teachers to be safe and caring, when we play sports and can channel our energy into developing skills rather than being on high alert for put-downs and public humiliation, when we can operate in a prison system where inmates are supported in their ultimate return to society and not dehumanized, we find ourselves in safe environments.

How can we apply polyvagal theory in order to transform threats into safety?

Porges’ research has shown that safety can be established when we “co-regulate.” On one level, co-regulation can be understood as the opposite of bullying and abuse. The science shows that our innate ability to calm one another down is the key to homeostasis, where we can heal and reach our higher potential. Co-regulating means using our facial expressions, our tone of voice, and the prosody or pattern of our speech to help one another achieve a sense of connection and belonging.

reallywellmadedesks / Pixabay
Source: reallywellmadedesks / Pixabay

Making someone feel like they belong by transforming our facial expressions from angry and disdainful into ones that are encouraging and supportive is co-regulating at work. Taking a tendency to yell or use insults and put-downs and shifting our tone returns energy to peers and colleagues. A low-frequency or growling mutter can humiliate someone but can be consciously replaced by higher-pitched, soothing talk like that we might use with a child or a pet, if indeed, we want others to feel connected to us and belong to an inclusive community.

It is time we start prioritizing safety in the workplace, school, sports, and arts. Porges, appropriately writing and communicating with his son, which is symbolic of what polyvagal is all about, explains in concise terms why it matters.

"When we feel safe, we are capable of generosity, empathy, altruism, growth and compassion," he writes. "When we don’t (or perhaps never) feel safe, our sense of self-preservation trumps all else, and selfish, desperate, and aggressive behaviors are all but inevitable for most people."

Bullying and abuse are a cycle that turns on a lack of safety. We must take our unconscious neuroception and transform it into our number one conscious concern at work, school, and elsewhere. If we wish to replace the intergenerational cycle of abuse, we must put our energy into collective safety. That investment supports the paradoxical aspect of energy: the more you spend, the more you have.

Imagine humanity as a planetary species defined by generosity, empathy, altruism, growth, and compassion rather than one that is selfish, bullying, opportunistic, decaying, and abusive. We have the knowledge to make this change so that our burnout becomes endless energy.


Fraser, J. (2022). The Bullied Brain. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Porges, S. & Porges, S. (2023). Our Polyvagal World. London: Norton.

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