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Bullying: More than just Social Pain

Written by Carleigh Sanderson, PhD candidate, School of Psychology, University of Ottawa

Anyone who has witnessed or been subjected to bullying can attest to the fact that bullying is a destructive social experience. Researchers have corroborated that the effects of childhood bullying are felt well-beyond the initial incident. Furthermore, the damaging effects of bullying have been shown to impede social relationships, deteriorate well-being, disrupt physiological processes, and degrade overall health.

A recent study by deLara (2018) documented concerns from adults who had experienced childhood bullying. Many of the individuals reported symptoms related to depression, social anxiety, and unhealthy relationships. Research has also indicated that being subjected to bullying increases risk for adverse health outcomes, such as inflammatory diseases, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease (Copeland et al., 2014). Dysregulated hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and cortisol secretions are physiological malfunctions that have been examined in the literature on bullying. Vaillancourt and colleagues (2008) indicated that children who were bullied were more likely to have dysregulated cortisol levels. Cortisol is an important hormone that prepares the body for a physical response. However, repeated duress such as bullying, causes an overuse of the system and can reduce levels of cortisol. A reduction in cortisol secretion can lead to a feeling of low-energy. Low-energy is a symptom of depression and can affect an individual’s desire to engage in social activities.  

The negative effects of bullying on physical and mental health reinforces the need to stop bullying before it begins. PREVNet offers several evidence-based resources that professionals who work with children and youth can implement. An incident of bullying can be stopped by just one person, so inform yourself about how to effectively intervene, and become someone’s hero :)

Practical Strategies for Intervention:

  • STOP the bullying. Make eye contact with the individual being bullied, and the individual who is bullying. Tell the individual who is bullying that their behaviour is unacceptable.
  • TALK to the individuals involved in the bullying. Ask why the incident happened.
  • EXPLAIN that the bullying behaviour is ineffective.
  • PROBLEM SOLVE and brainstorm solutions to prevent the bullying from happening again.


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