Being bullied is bad for your health. And not just in term of broken bones, bruises and future psychological problems, but also in terms of current physical health issues.
A number of studies show that victimized individuals-relative to their non-victimized peers-report higher levels of health problems such as headaches, abdominal pains, sore throats, colds, and mouth sores. Victimized children are also more likely to miss school (a rough index of illness), perform poorly in school, and attempt suicide.
A soon to be published study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology by Dr. Jennifer Knack of Clarkson University and her colleagues, discovered that bullying significantly predicted not only the severity of health problems in a sample of college age students, but also the frequency of illness. In other words, being bullied is linked not only to getting sick, but also to how often and how intensely the victim of bullying gets sick.
The study also found that victimized individuals reported greater heart problems, chest pains, dizziness, fainting, blood pressure problems, and bone and joint issues than their non-victimized counterparts.
According to Dr. Knack, being bullied may be changing the way our bodies respond to stress, which in turns leads to poorer health outcomes.
“The stress of being bullied may be impacting the way our bodies function, especially our neuroendocrine system which releases hormones such as cortisol, which in turn may be linked with poor physical health.”
Changes in the release of cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone,” are the hypothesized link between being bullied and poor physical health. Cortisol is released in varying amounts throughout the day and is associated with positive effects such as aiding short-term memory and the regulation of blood pressure and glucose levels. However, high levels of cortisol due to chronic stress can have significant negative health consequences such as high blood pressure, decreased bone density, and cognitive impairment.
An earlier study by Dr. Knack and her team, published in Brain and Cognition, explored this link between peer victimization, cortisol levels, and health problems. The study found that victimized adolescents, unlike their non-victimized counterparts, displayed a cortical response similar to individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More specifically, they had lower levels of cortisol in the morning than their non-victimized peers, a pattern typically associated with prolonged exposure to stress. This “blunted” cortisol response makes it more difficult for bullied children to respond effectively to threats to their immune system.
“Typically in the morning, cortisol levels peak about 30 minutes after waking; most individuals show a sharp increase in cortisol levels from waking to 30 minutes later. The levels then gradually decrease throughout the remainder of the day. My research found that victimized adolescents have a flatter increase in cortisol levels from the time they wake up in the morning until 30 minutes after waking- we found that lower cortisol did predict poorer physical health. ”
The recent surge in suicides due to peer victimization has brought the larger psychological effects of bullying to the forefront of the national conversation. However, Dr. Knack’s research suggests that the physical health consequences of peer victimization also need to be a part of the conversation.
“Our results suggest that future research needs to examine whether being bullied is changing the way our bodies are functioning or whether how our bodies function makes us more prone to getting sick if we experience bullying. The media coverage of bullying often focuses on suicides and struggles with peers; this study adds another layer of complexity by looking more closely at why individuals being bullied report more physical health problems.”