Strong Link Found Between Childhood Bullying and Eating Disorders

Have you ever wondered whether bullying can have serious consequences on victims, many years after the episodes have stopped? A new study indicates that bullying does, indeed, affect victims in the long term, but it also has consequences for bullies.

When parents discover that their children are being bullied, the first step is always to put an end to the bullying behavior. It is important, however, to realize that therapy may be necessary since new research shows that bullies and victims are at an increased risk for anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

Researchers from Duke Medicine and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine looked at 1,420 children from the ages of nine to 16, finding that children who bullied were twice as likely to show signs of bulimia compared to non-bullies. Researchers believe that the habit of teasing others about body image, etc., can make bullies more sensitive to their own body issues. They stated that human beings tend to be most critical about the issues they are unhappy about themselves – these issues include dissatisfaction with one’s own body image. Additionally, guilt or regret about their actions can lead them to take part in unhealthy activities such as bingeing and purging.

Children who were victims, meanwhile, were at an almost twice greater risk of showing signs of anorexia and bulimia. Currently, the mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than that associated with all causes of death for females aged between 15 and 24.

Children who were victims and who also took part in bullying behavior favored worst of all: they had a 22.8% prevalence of anorexia symptoms, compared to 5.6% of children who were not involved in bullying at all. They also had the highest rate of binge eating and purging to keep their weight down.

Depression links to bullying

Anxiety and depression are also linked to bullying; high levels of anxiety, depression and panic disorder, as well as behavioral, educational and emotional problems, have been found in both victims and aggressors of bullying. Victims and bullies also have a higher risk of agoraphobia and tend to experience more physical problems, which include stress-related headaches, muscle pain, weight changes, poor immunity, digestive upset, etc. One part of the problem is the fact that constant stress raises levels of cortisol (a hormone which, when present at chronically high levels, is linked to serious conditions like Type 2 diabetes and obesity).

It is important that parents, teachers and educational institutions understand that bullying is not just ‘a normal part of growing up’; rather, it has serious consequences. Indeed, bullies and victims are more likely to think about (or plan) suicide. Bullying poses a great emotional cost to society and since its effects can be long-term, steps should be taken to restore emotional well-being in those who have been involved in bullying, via counseling and, where necessary, family therapy.

Another important study found that children who are bullied have higher levels of CRP (a marker of inflammation which poses an increased likelihood of heart disease and other illnesses) when they are adults. Interestingly, the same study showed that those who bullied had lower CRP levels. Constant exposure to bullying also affects white blood cell function, making children more susceptible to colds, flus, and autoimmune conditions. Allergy symptoms can also worsen when children are subject to constant stress.

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Referral & therapy

If children are showing signs of eating disorders, they should be attended to by a team of specialists which may include their doctor, a nutritionist, and counselors. Currently, one of the gold standard treatments for eating disorders is Maudsley therapy, which emphasizes the importance of avoiding blame and working on practical solutions. The whole family takes part in this therapy, in which the first goal is to restore a healthy weight. The person recovering from the eating disorder is given more and more independence with respect to their nutritional choices, as they begin enjoying a healthier relationship to food.

Anxiety and depression also need to be diagnosed and treated. In severe cases of depression, medication may be necessary, though cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) also works successfully to treat depression and anxiety. CBT teaches people to understand the connection between the way they think, feel and behave. Often, negative thought patterns and stress affects the way we behave; the key is to recognize these patterns and change the way we react to them.

Finally, so-called ‘alternative therapies’ are fast gaining ground for eating disorders and mental conditions such as depression and anxiety. Two of the most successful methods are yoga and mindful meditation, which focus on the importance of keeping the mind ‘in the here and now’. Yoga and mindful meditation also incorporate abdominal breathing, which is an excellent tool to use during stressful moments, when the ‘fight or flight response’ is invoked. In general, a multi-pronged approach should be adopted; one which takes into account the individual needs and experiences of someone who has been involved in bullying.

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