Physical Effects of Bullying

Jul 15, 2014 | Bullying | Cyberbullying, Schools, Youth & Teens

Courtesy of Lisa Morris via

What happens to us in early life has a huge impact on us in later life. Bullying is one example of something that can happen during childhood and have a knock-on effect throughout our life. Depression, difficulty with relationships and an increased likelihood of substance abuse are all long term results of bullying. However, the physical impact it can have can also be devastating and can even contribute to the development of heart problems because of the high level of stress the body is constantly under. It’s therefore vital that we nip childhood bullying in the bud before it impacts on later life.
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 pain

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.

Digestive upset

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.

Weight changes

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.
If you suspect your child is being bullied, this article provides information on the physical symptoms, causes and effects.
About Lisa: Lisa Morris worked in mental health for over a decade before taking a step back to spend more time with her family and write about the subjects she is most passionate about.

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  1. Michael K Walker

    At 57 I’m not your typical senior at Purdue studying film. Throughout two colleges I have recycled the bully topic everywhere that would allow it and while I don’t have a PhD I am a father/grandfather, a former police officer, and I have more than 20 years in sales and supervision. I took this semester off at Purdue to write, produce, and direct a film about school bullying that uses as it’s conceptual nucleus an anti-bully program I conceptualized as a wrap to a social problems class I took at Ivy Tech.
    Paper #1 this is bullying. Paper #2 this is what bullying does. Presentation: this is what we can do.
    What we can do is initiate a graded, added to the curriculum program that studies two bully topics per month. Each student will, anonymously, comment on that topic and then do a peer review of three to five others (five if they want an extra credit point to apply to that or another class). After the topic is closed they then revisit their comment and read the replies left by others about their post. They then comment again as to whether or not they have had a change in perspective. bullying throughout history can also be studied such as slavery, Nazi’s, jihad.
    I attribute this brainchild to a bullied young man who, in the same vein as “Pay it Forward”, is challenged to come up with something that wouldn’t be the joke bully awareness week is to the students.
    This young man takes his life after his also bullied girlfriend talks him out of being a school shooter. The next day in a live chat, after reading the poem “she” wrote titled “The Empty Chair” (starts off: “When you see my empty chair and you see that I’m not sitting there, do you wonder, do you care, about why you see my empty chair?”), she then stands on a very distinctive antique chair and hangs herself so those in chat can watch her die. In the montage ending that follows the poem is repeated as we see the discovery of her body, and all the terrible things that follow. At the end we see her teacher put the chair in the center of his desk where it will remain for the rest of the semester, then on the board we see two bully topics.
    The script is being polished, I’m in pre-production now, looking to shoot in mid June and have it canned by late August at the latest. Pre-production means a lot of things, getting the word out for one, fundraising is another. If this idea appeals to you and you’d like to help with either or both of those please let me know.

  2. Keri

    Personally, I was bullied. I was taunted, teased and harassed on the daily bases. I spent many night crying myself to sleep and wishing I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. So I very much know what it is like to be bullied. Many people I encounter with doesn’t believe that there are health risks to being bullied, but there is. I am 17 years old and I have fibromyalgia. A chronic illness that only woman over 60 have. My doctor asked me what had me so tense and stressed and I always hated talking about it, but looking back I realize it is because of the stress I was under. This stuff isn’t a joke. I will suffer from being bullied for the rest of my life.

    • American SPCC

      Hi Keri,
      Thanks for being so brave and speaking up. Please reach out to Stomp Out Bullying, we are sure you will get the guidance that you need. The STOMP Out Bullying™ HelpChat Line is a confidential online chat that helps youth ages 13-24 with issues around bullying and cyberbullying. They also provide support to youth who may be at risk of suicide. Click here.

  3. Nizhoni Rodriguez

    honestly i was bullied since i first entered school, i was also bullied online for a couple of years… everyone says you cant get anything from being bullied but everyday i have to deal with the stress of headaches and everytime i have a headache i feel like everyone and everything around me is going to hurt me…. i also have a chance of memory loss because everyone use to like pounding my head on lockers…. nobody thinks its true when we say that there really are side effects from bullying and that it could effect you forever…. im 16 and still am currently being bullied every now and then…. and i think that it will never go away and i will suffer for rest of my life because of the fact that i was bullied

  4. Serenity

    Thank you for this info! I am writting a essay on bullying. This was the best artice I could find

  5. Vince Gapasin`

    Could be one of the best reference for reserch paper.



  1. Childhood Bullying Leads To Weight Gain In Adults - […] triggers the “flight and fight” response to protect you from danger. This in turn releases the stress hormone cortisol…

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