Government figures show that at least a quarter of children experience bullying at school and according to the Worlplace Bullying Institute more than a third of adults are bullied in the workplace. While bullying has a serious impact on mental well-being, with victims more prone to anxiety, low mood, disturbed sleep, reduced confidence and problems with low self-esteem, bullying can also trigger a range of physical health problems.
From aches and pains to increased susceptibility to infections and digestive upset, experiencing harassment at school or work can leave you more vulnerable to ill-health, which in part explains why you are more likely to take more sick days when bullied. Here we take a look at the physical effects of bullying and why they occur.
The stress response
Bullying doesn’t just place you under mental stress; it places your body under physical stress as well. Exposure to stress triggers a series of physical changes within your body, known as the fight-flight response, designed to protect you from danger. In its simplest terms, when your brain recognizes a stressful situation, it stimulates the release of a hormone that encourages your kidneys to release epinephrine. This in turn triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises your blood pressure and pulse, increases your blood sugar levels and prepares your muscles for action, while suppressing less essential processes such as immune and digestive function. While these changes are effective at protecting us from danger, when triggered on a daily basis due to bullying, this is bad news for us and explains the physical effects experienced by victims.
If you experience headaches when you are the victim of bullying, it’s no coincidence. Although headaches can have a variety of triggers, suffering from stress increases your risk of tension headaches. As the name implies, these headaches are associated with tension around your forehead, the back of your head and your neck, and while they are often mild, the more you experience them the worse your pain. It is important that you seek treatment for tension headaches, as if you start to worry about the pain, this increases stress levels and is likely to worsen your headaches.
Muscle tension doesn’t just affect the muscles around your head, but the muscles throughout your body, so if bullying leaves you feeling tense, you may
experience pain in your back and limbs as well. Psychological stress makes your muscles contract, not just when you are active, but also at rest, with this continuous contraction felt as pain. Altered blood flow to your muscles, metabolic changes within your muscle cells and reduced repair of damaged muscle fibers, all occurring as a result of stress, may alternatively explain your muscle aches.
If you already suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, you may find that when harassed your symptoms are worse, increasing problems with pain, bloating and altered bowel habits. This is because there is a close relationship between your brain and digestive system, owing to the network of nerves that supply your gut, and experiencing stress increases intestinal sensitivity. However, even if you don’t have a pre-existing problem with your digestion, you can suffer from problems, such as constipation and bloating, as the stress response slows digestive transit and makes digestion less efficient.
If the bathroom scales show that you’re losing or gaining weight, this is another possible effect of bullying. For instance, increased production of cortisol in response to stress increases fat storage and appetite, and even if your body isn’t feeling the effects of cortisol, you may turn to food for comfort. Alternatively, some people find that they lose their appetite when stressed, and if your body breaks down your muscles for fuel, this muscle wasting can also contribute to weight loss.
Altered immune function
If you notice you develop more colds and other minor infections when experiencing bullying, it’s no surprise, as continued exposure to stressful situations is linked to an increased risk of infections affecting your nose and throat. This may occur because white blood cells, which protect you from infectious agents, have receptors for stress hormones on their surface, so exposure to these can alter their function. Equally, when bullied you may not take such good care of your general health, perhaps using cigarettes or alcohol as coping mechanisms, eating less healthily and sleeping less, all of which can suppress your immune function. Finally, you may also seek extra social support during this time, so you are more likely to come into contact with microbes that cause infections, simply by having more social contact.
You aren’t just more likely to suffer from infections when bullied, but if you have allergies, these are likely to worsen too. Research shows that even slight exposure to stress can make your allergy symptoms more pronounced, last for longer and that the next day symptoms are often worse. The work showed that levels of both stress hormones and cytokines, chemical messengers released by white blood cells, were increased among those participants who suffered from stress, highlighting a possible link between the two.
You may also have an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease if you experience significant emotional stress as a result of bullying. Examples of these conditions include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Graves’ disease, and occur when your immune system turns on your own body tissues. Indeed, around 80% of people affected by autoimmune conditions report experiencing high levels of stress before the onset of their ill-health. The link between stress and autoimmune disease may occur due to the close connection between your nervous and immune systems, but exactly why this causes changes in your immune cells is unclear.
Possible link with heart disease
Although there is not a definite link between stress and heart disease, there are several ways in which stress may adversely affect the health of your heart. For instance, persistent stress increases blood pressure, but it also increases inflammation, which is another risk factor for heart disease. However, if harassment encourages unhealthy behaviors, such as turning to high fat, high sugar foods, drinking and smoking, this may also take its toll on the health of your blood vessels.
If you have concerns about your physical health as a result of bullying, you should seek medical advice. However, it is also important to seek help to stop the bullying, as your health problems are unlikely to resolve till you address their cause.
Contributor Linda Carter is a former teacher and health worker, who now works as a freelance writer.