Penn State researchers suggest that hormones in saliva may be a biological indicator of the trauma that children suffer as a result of chronic bullying by peers.
The researchers believe that their finding may aid in the early recognition and intervention of long-term psychological effects on youth.
'Bullying is mainly self-reported either by students or observed by teachers,' said JoLynn V. Carney, Associate Professor of Counselor Education.
The researchers looked at the hormone cortisol in students' saliva to evaluate its validity as a reliable biomarker for assessing effects of precursors to bullying. This hormone is responsible for regulating various behavioral traits, such as the fight-flight response and immune activity, which are connected to sensory acuity and aspects of learning and memory.
'A lot of kids suffer in silence. When you hear of school shootings, or students who commit suicide as reaction to chronic peer abuse, those are kids who are not coping with the abuse by seeking appropriate support,' said Carney.
'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,' the researcher added.
She said that the cortisol levels spike and learning and memory functions are negatively impacted when the children sense any threat. She further said that the longer such a spike continues, the more damage it can do to various aspects of a person's physical, social, and emotional health.
However, when a person undergoes a lengthy period of stress similar to the chronic bullying experience, he shows less than normal cortisol reactions that are related to a decreased sensitivity to stress.
For their study, the researchers tested the saliva of 94 sixth grade students between 9 to 14 years of age, and sought from them the information about their experience on being bullied or watching someone being bullied, and additional measures of anxiety and trauma.
The study suggested that while bullying was directly linked to trauma and anxiety, it was indirectly linked to cortisol levels.
'This confirms our 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,' said Carney and her colleague Richard Hazler, who recently presented their findings at the American Counseling Association Convention in Detroit.
'All of a sudden depression was not simply a psychological phenomenon, but it also has a physical aspect with potential medication treatments to support counseling,' they noted.