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Saliva clue to chronic bullying.


Hormones in children's saliva may be a biological indicator of the trauma that children undergo when peers chronically bully them. Researchers from Penn State University have described how biological markers can aid in the early recognition and intervention of long-term psychological effects on youth.

JoLynn V. Carney, Associate Professor at Penn State, indicated that bullying is mainly either self-reported by students or observed by teachers. Carney and her team looked at the hormone cortisol in students' saliva to evaluate its validity as a reliable biomarker in assessing effects of precursors to bullying. In humans, this hormone is responsible for regulating behavioral traits such as the fight-flight response and immune activity that are connected to sensory acuity and aspects of learning and memory.

A lot of bullied children suffer in silence. When students have opened fire in their schools or have committed suicide, they were reacting to chronic peer abuse. Many of these students were not coping with the abuse by seeking appropriate support. They keep their anger and frustration within and fantasize either how they are going to escape the abuse through suicide or how they are going to get revenge on their abusers. When a person senses a threat, cortisol levels spike, and learning and memory functions are negatively affected. The body basically focuses the bulk of its attention on surviving the threat. The longer such a spike continues, the more damage it can do to various aspects of one's physical, social, and emotional health.

However, when a person undergoes a lengthy period of stress similar to the chronic bullying experience, researchers have found less than normal cortisol reactions that are related to a decreased sensitivity to stress, a sort of numbing or desensitizing effect. This hypocortisol finding has serious physical and psychological implications for children--both for victims and bystanders. The Penn State researchers tested the saliva of 94 sixth-grade students between ages 9 and 14, along with a questionnaire on their experience on being bullied or watching someone being bullied, and additional measures of anxiety and trauma.

Because cortisol has a predictable daily pattern of highest levels in early morning and declining levels throughout the day, researchers collected samples of saliva when the students first arrived at school and then again before lunch. Dr. Hazler reported that lunchtime is one of those less supervised periods when kids are more likely to be bullied.

One of the things Carney and Hazier were trying to measure was not the reaction immediately following a bullying event, but instead the anticipatory anxiety that takes place with the approach of situations where bullying is more commonly occurs. Even students who are not bullied suffer from such anticipatory stress because they anticipate watching their friends getting bullied and worry that they might be next. This anxiety may be most dangerous because it is not dependent on the bullying happening on a continual basis. Results from the study suggest that although bullying is directly linked to trauma and anxiety, it is indirectly linked to cortisol levels.

The researchers reported that this finding confirmed their theory that while exposure to a one-time or very rare bullying episode might cause higher cortisol levels, exposure to bullying on a chronic basis would be associated with hypocortisol levels. The researchers likened their findings on bullying to the study of depression, which used to be solely focused on psychiatric observations and behavioral tests until biological changes began to be" discovered.

(Source: American Counseling Association Conference, Detroit, Michigan, March 2007.)
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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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