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Bullying & the Brain

Recent research on the neurological impacts of bullying has increased our understanding of the mental and physical impacts of bullying. Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt points out that this form of trauma can result in “invisible” biological changes that increase risks to health and well-being – both in the short and longer terms.

According to Dr. Vaillancourt, many of the physical and mental health consequences of bullying result from changes in the way genes are activated or silenced when someone is victimized by their peers, and this may lead to poorer health. Understanding the connections between these “invisible” scars and their mental, physical, and social responses can help educators to better construct effective prevention and intervention strategies in schools.

The Body’s Stress Response

The neuroendocrine system is also known as the body’s stress response system. While humans are wired for belonging and cooperation, we are also wired to respond to immediate stressors or threats. When early humans realized that they were being stalked by a lion, the hormone adrenaline would have been released to assist in the fight or flight response followed by the stress hormone, cortisol.

The influence of hormones can be problematic in modern times, when non-life-threatening stressors can be interpreted by the brain as just as threatening as the lion in the bushes. Hormones such as cortisol can be harmful when released repeatedly over a long period of time.

When people experience extreme or long-term stress, the brain is negatively affected in both physical and functional ways.

  1. Cortisol levels can become blunted over the long term, meaning that a person’s ability to respond to stressors can be diminished
  2. Disrupted neurogenesis (brain damage)
  3. Cell death in glucocorticoid receptor sites
  4. Systemic inflammation
  5. Poorer cognitive function, such as that relating to memory

Experiences of being bullied by peers likely becomes “biologically embedded in the physiology of the person.” These invisible scars change a person’s capacity to deal with subsequent stressors and modify their health and learning trajectory.

To learn more about bullying and the brain and how we can reduce the impacts of being bullied, check out our Bullying and the Brain tip sheet, and the additional resources below.

Additional Resources:

Bullying Gets Under Your Skin: Effects of Bullying on Children and Youth
Tracy Vaillancourt, Ph.D., argues that the neurobiological impacts of bullying can result in “invisible” biological changes that increase risks to health and well-being – both in the short and longer terms. This article highlights some of the key findings from Dr. Vaillancourt’s webinar “Bullying Gets Under Your Skin: Effects of Bullying on Children and Youth.” According to Dr. Vaillancourt, understanding the biological underpinnings of peer relations helps us to better understand the plight of peer-bused children and youth.

Newsletter Series for Educators #9: Bullying and the Brain

Newsletter Series for Educators #10: Understanding How Educators Can Reduce the Impacts of Being Bullied

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