Being bullied during childhood might have lifelong health effects related to chronic stress exposure, including an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.
Recent advances in understanding of the negative health effects of chronic stress highlight a pressing need to clarify the longer-term health implications of childhood bullying, according to the review by Susannah J. Tye, PhD, of the Mayo Clinic and colleagues.
"Bullying, as a form of chronic social stress, may have significant health consequences if not addressed early," Dr. Tye comments. "We encourage child health professionals to assess both the mental and physical health effects of bullying."
“When an individual is exposed to brief periods of stress, the body can often effectively cope with the challenge and recover back to baseline,” Tye said. “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 load, physiological processes critical to health and well-being can be negatively impacted.”
With increasing allostatic load, chronic stress can lead to changes in inflammatory, hormonal, and metabolic responses. Over time, these physiological alterations can contribute to the development of diseases; including depression, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as progression of psychiatric disorders.
Also, chronic stress in childhood can affect a child’s ability to develop psychological skills to cope with future stress. This may occur in part through epigenetic changes and alterations in gene function related to environmental exposures that change the stress response itself.
"Once dismissed as an innocuous experience of childhood, bullying is now recognized as having significant psychological effects, particularly with chronic exposure."
Tye and colleagues believe that current research shows the importance of addressing bullying victimization as a "standard component" of clinical care for children, at the primary care doctor's office as well as in mental health care. They conclude, "Asking about bullying represents a practical first step towards intervening to prevent traumatic exposure and reduce risk for further psychiatric and related morbidities."
Finally, this study show us that future research, in particular, collaborations between clinical and basic science researchers, could have important implications for understanding, and potentially intervening in, the relationship between childhood bullying and long-term health.