How being bullied can lead to long-term health problems

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The chronic stress of bullying puts consumers at higher risk of developing many diseases

Being bullied when you’re a child can leave some physical and psychological scars, but a new study shows that it can also lead to other lasting health problems.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic have found that those who are bullied when they are young are at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and several other conditions when they become adults. They say the cause is likely related to chronic stress exposure.

"Bullying, as a form of chronic social stress, may have significant health consequences if not addressed early. We encourage child health professionals to assess both the mental and physical health effects of bullying,” said Dr. Susannah Tye. "Once dismissed as an innocuous experience of childhood, bullying is now recognized as having significant psychological effects, particularly with chronic exposure.”

Stress exposure

The Mayo Clinic study is not the first to investigate the health effects of bullying. Previous research has touched on its physical symptoms, many of which are recurrent and thus far unexplained. However, this new study comes in the wake of recent research on the negative health effects of chronic stress.

The researchers state that consistent exposure to social stress creates “wear and tear” on the body – a process called allostatic load -- that is distinct from short-term periods of stress.

"When an individual is exposed to brief periods of stress, the body can often effectively cope with the challenge and recover back to baseline," explains Tye. "Yet, with chronic stress, this recovery process may not have ample opportunity to occur, and allostatic load can build to a point of overload. In such states of allostatic overload, physiological processes critical to health and well-being can be negatively impacted."

The researchers tie several physical changes to allostatic load, including alterations to inflammatory, hormonal, metabolic, and stress responses. Over time, those changes can lead to conditions like depression, diabetes, heart disease, and a host of psychiatric disorders.

Preventing bullying

While Tye and her colleagues state that there is no proof of a cause-and-effect relationship between bullying and these various maladies, they say that monitoring bullying and stopping it early may go a long way towards improving consumers' health.

"It is important that we appreciate the biological processes linking these psychological and physiological phenomena, including their potential to impact long-term health. . . Asking about bullying...represents a practical first step towards intervening to prevent traumatic exposure and reduce risk for further psychiatric and related morbidities,” the team concludes.

The full study has been published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

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