Intended for healthcare professionals


An end to bullying: five minutes with Alice Hartley

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 06 March 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k1035

What is Bullying?

Bullying is ubiquitous and iniquitous, but misunderstood. Although it’s usually considered sadism with vulnerable victims, bullying is actually a neuropsychiatric disorder (which I call “neuro-bullying”) that is rooted in our autonomic nervous system.

Our autonomic nervous system consists of two opposing branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system responds to fear and pain with hate and “fight or flight.” The parasympathetic system responds to trust and pleasure with relaxation and vulnerability.

Ideally, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are in dynamic balance. But just as fear and pain can overpower trust and pleasure, the sympathetic system can overpower the parasympathetic system. This causes us to fear and hate vulnerability, both in others and ourselves.

I propose that bullying is fear and hatred for the vulnerability of the parasympathetic system. This is why bullies target vulnerable groups like women and children, as well as the poor, elderly, disabled, and socially stigmatized.

Finally, the cure for bullying, and most social woes, is to protect the vulnerable, but vital, parasympathetic system, because vulnerability is not weakness or bleakness, but the greatness of meekness, the elixir of life and fixer of strife.

Competing interests: No competing interests

08 March 2018
Hugh Mann
New York, NY, USA