Bullying can have serious psychological ramifications, according to a new study involving mice. This new research suggests that bullying, along with other social stressors, can affect gene activity in the brain. The study warns that these changes may result in the development of chronic social anxiety.
“Just as alcohol affects your liver, stress affects your brain,” said lead researcher Yoav Litvin of Rockefeller University in New York. “The anxiety that can result from being teased and otherwise treated poorly is organically based,” Litvin said, “meaning it arises from physical changes in the brain.”
The experiment showed that bullied mice had increased activity in a gene directly responsible for the brain’s sensitivity to social stimuli. At the conclusion of the study, after nearly a full day with no bullying at all, the bullied mice were recoiled from new friendly mice and collectively avoided them altogether, showing that the elevated sensitivity may linger long after the bullying stops. Although the exact effect of bullying cannot be determined in days or weeks, the study suggests that victims of bullying may be so overcome with social anxiety that they have trouble developing new relationships, even with friendly peers.
The good news is that although the brain is affected by negative relationships, it is also significantly affected by positive relationships. Litvin says that because the brain is a social organ, it can be changed and ultimately healed through the formation of supportive and nurturing relationships.
In the study, the researchers used a drug to calm the overly sensitive mice. “But drugs are not the only way to go,” Litvin said. He says that developing a strong relationship with a therapist may be a good place to start, especially if the bullied person is experiencing severe social anxieties.
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