Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 47, Issue 12, pp 1981–1993 | Cite as

Blunted Physiological Stress Reactivity among Youth with a History of Bullying and Victimization: Links to Depressive Symptoms

  • Laura J. LambeEmail author
  • Wendy M. Craig
  • Tom Hollenstein


Bullying and peer victimization are stressful experiences for youth, and are associated with increased risk for psychopathology. Physiological differences in the body’s stress response system may help us to understand vulnerability for depressive symptoms among youth involved with bullying. The current study examined both sympathetic and parasympathetic activity using skin conductance (SCL) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) at a neutral baseline and during Cyberball, a stressful social exclusion paradigm. Participants consisted of 175 youth in grades 6–11 (mean age 13.6 years, 51% girls). Multilevel modeling was used to examine changes in both positive and negative affect, and physiological stress reactivity over time. Logistic regression was used to examine the associations between bullying, victimization, and RSA on depressive symptoms. Peer victimization was negatively associated with resting RSA. Bullying others was negatively associated with SCL during Cyberball. Additionally, RSA reactivity during acute stress moderated the link between victimization and depressive symptoms. Victimization was more strongly associated with depressive symptoms when youth also demonstrated blunted RSA reactivity. These results suggest that both victimized youth and those who bully others have differences in their autonomic responses to acute stress. Individual differences in stress physiology may help us to understand vulnerability and resilience to depressive symptoms in the context of bullying and victimization.


Bullying Victimization Stress Cyberball Depression Adolescence 



Dr. Tom Hollenstein and the Adolescent Dynamics Lab are graciously thanked for their work in collecting the data used in the current study. Laura Lambe was supported by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Vanier Graduate Scholarship. This research was funded by a SSHRC grant to Drs. Craig and Hollenstein.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Aiken, L. S., West, S. G., & Reno, R. R. (1991). Multiple regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. Sage.Google Scholar
  2. Allen, J. J. B., Chambers, A. S., & Towers, D. N. (2007). The many metrics of cardiac chronotropy: A pragmatic primer and a brief comparison of metrics. Biological Psychology, 74(2), 243–262. Scholar
  3. Baker, E., Shelton, K. H., Baibazarova, E., Hay, D. F., & van Goozen, S. H. M. (2013). Low skin conductance activity in infancy predicts aggression in toddlers 2 years later. Psychological Science, 24(6), 1051–1056. Scholar
  4. Beauchaine, T. (2001). Vagal tone, development, and Gray’s motivational theory: Toward an integrated model of autonomic nervous system functioning in psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 13(2), 183–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beck, A. T., Steer, R. A., & Brown, G. K. (1996). Beck depression inventory-II. San Antonio, 78(2), 490–498.Google Scholar
  6. Biopac Systems Inc (2009). AcqKnowledge 4.0 software guide. Retrieved March 26, 2018 from
  7. Biopac Systems Inc (2016). MP150 systems. Retrieved March 26, 2018 from
  8. Biopac Systems Inc (2017). TEL100C remote monitoring system. Retrieved March 26, 2018 from
  9. Bolling, D. Z., Pitskel, N. B., Deen, B., Crowley, M. J., Mayes, L. C., & Pelphrey, K. A. (2011). Development of neural systems for processing social exclusion from childhood to adolescence. Developmental Science, 14(6), 1431–1444. Scholar
  10. Brendgen, M., Ouellet-Morin, I., Lupien, S., Vitaro, F., Dionne, G., & Boivin, M. (2017). Does cortisol moderate the environmental association between peer victimization and depression symptoms? A genetically informed twin study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 84, 42–50. Scholar
  11. Carroll, D., Ginty, A. T., Whittaker, A. C., Lovallo, W. R., & de Rooij, S. R. (2017). The behavioural, cognitive, and neural corollaries of blunted cardiovascular and cortisol reactions to acute psychological stress. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 77, 74–86. Scholar
  12. Copeland, W. E., Wolke, D., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013). Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(4), 419–426. Scholar
  13. Craig, W. M., & Pepler, D. J. (2007). Understanding bullying: From research to practice. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 48(2), 86–93. Scholar
  14. Craig, W., Lambe, L., & McIver, T. (2016). Bullying and fighting. In J. Freeman, M. King, & W. Pickett (Eds.), Health-behaviour in school-aged children (HBSC) in Canada: Focus on relationships (pp. 167–182). Public Health Agency of Canada.Google Scholar
  15. Cui, L., Morris, A. S., Harrist, A. W., Larzelere, R. E., Criss, M. M., & Houltberg, B. J. (2015). Adolescent RSA responses during an anger discussion task: Relations to emotion regulation and adjustment. Emotion, 15(3), 360–372. Scholar
  16. Del Giudice, M., Ellis, B. J., & Shirtcliff, E. A. (2011). The adaptive calibration model of stress responsivity. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 1562–1592. Scholar
  17. Erath, S. A., Su, S., & Tu, K. M. (2016). Electrodermal reactivity moderates the prospective association between peer victimization and depressive symptoms in early adolescence. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 1–12. Scholar
  18. Gao, Y., Raine, A., Venables, P. H., Dawson, M. E., & Mednick, S. A. (2010). Association of poor childhood fear conditioning and adult crime. American Journal of Psychiatry, 167(1), 56–60. Scholar
  19. Gini, G., & Pozzoli, T. (2009). Association between bullying and psychosomatic problems: A meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 123(3), 1059–1065. Scholar
  20. Ginty, A. T., Gianaros, P. J., Derbyshire, S. W., Phillips, A. C., & Carroll, D. (2013). Blunted cardiac stress reactivity relates to neural hypoactivation. Psychophysiology, 50(3), 219–229. Scholar
  21. Graziano, P., & Derefinko, K. (2013). Cardiac vagal control and children’s adaptive functioning: A meta-analysis. Biological Psychology. Scholar
  22. Gross, E. F. (2009). Logging on, bouncing Back: An experimental investigation of online communication following social exclusion. Developmental Psychology, 45(6), 1787–1793. Scholar
  23. IBM Corp. Released 2016. IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows, Version 24.0. Armonk, NY: IBM Corp.Google Scholar
  24. Iffland, B., Sansen, L. M., Catani, C., & Neuner, F. (2014). The trauma of peer abuse: Effects of relational peer victimization and social anxiety disorder on physiological and affective reactions to social exclusion. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 5.
  25. Kelly, M., McDonald, S., & Rushby, J. (2012). All alone with sweaty palms - physiological arousal and ostracism. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 83(3), 309–314. Scholar
  26. Kliewer, W. (2016). Victimization and biological stress responses in urban adolescents: Emotion regulation as a moderator. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(9), 1812–1823. Scholar
  27. Lucini, D., Di Fede, G., Parati, G., & Pagani, M. (2005). Impact of chronic psychosocial stress on autonomic cardiovascular regulation in otherwise healthy subjects. Hypertension, 46(5), 1201–1206. Scholar
  28. Marcovitch, S., Leigh, J., Calkins, S. D., Leerks, E. M., O’Brien, M., & Blankson, A. N. (2010). Moderate vagal withdrawal in 3.5-year-old children is associated with optimal performance on executive function tasks. Developmental Psychobiology, 52(6), 603–608. Scholar
  29. McFadden, D. (1974). Conditional logit analysis of qualitative choice behavior. In P. Zarembka (Ed.), Frontiers in econometrics (pp. 104–142). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  30. Mclaughlin, K. A., Alves, S., & Sheridan, M. A. (2014). Vagal regulation and internalizing psychopathology among adolescents exposed to childhood adversity. Developmental Psychobiology, 56(5), 1036–1051. Scholar
  31. McLaughlin, K. A., Rith-Najarian, L., Dirks, M. A., & Sheridan, M. A. (2015). Low vagal tone magnifies the association between psychosocial stress exposure and internalizing psychopathology in adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 44(2), 314–328. Scholar
  32. Murray-Close, D., Crick, N. R., Tseng, W. L., Lafko, N., Burrows, C., Pitula, C., & Ralston, P. (2014). Physiological stress reactivity and physical and relational aggression: The moderating roles of victimization, type of stressor, and child gender. Development and Psychopathology, 26(3), 589–603. Scholar
  33. Muthén, L. K., & Muthén, B. O. (2012). Mplus User's Guide (Seventh Edition). Los Angeles: Muthén & Muthén.Google Scholar
  34. Newman, M. L. (2014). Here we go again: Bullying history and cardiovascular responses to social exclusion. Physiology and Behavior, 133, 76–80. Scholar
  35. Obradović, J. (2012). How can the study of physiological reactivity contribute to our understanding of adversity and resilience processes in development? Development and Psychopathology, 24, 371–387. Scholar
  36. Ortiz, J., & Raine, A. (2004). Heart rate level and antisocial behavior in children and adolescents: A meta-analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 43(2), 154–162. Scholar
  37. Osman, A., Barrios, F. X., Gutierrez, P. M., Williams, J. E., & Bailey, J. (2008). Psychometric properties of the Beck depression inventory-II in nonclinical adolescent samples. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64(1), 83–102. Scholar
  38. Ouellet-Morin, I., Danese, A., Bowes, L., Shakoor, S., Ambler, A., Pariante, C. M., et al. (2011a). A discordant monozygotic twin design shows blunted cortisol reactivity among bullied children. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 50(6), 574–582. Scholar
  39. Ouellet-Morin, I., Odgers, C. L., Danese, A., Bowes, L., Shakoor, S., Papadopoulos, A. S., et al. (2011b). Blunted cortisol responses to stress signal social and behavioral problems among maltreated/bullied 12-year-old children. Biological Psychiatry, 70(11), 1016–1023. Scholar
  40. Park, G., Vasey, M. W., Van Bavel, J. J., & Thayer, J. F. (2013). Cardiac vagal tone is correlated with selective attention to neutral distractors under load. Psychophysiology, 50(4), 398–406. Scholar
  41. Phillips, A. C., Ginty, A. T., & Hughes, B. M. (2013). The other side of the coin: Blunted cardiovascular and cortisol reactivity are associated with negative health outcomes. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 90(1), 1–7. Scholar
  42. Porges, S. W. (2007). The polyvagal Perspetive. Biological Psychology, 74(2), 116–143. Scholar
  43. Raes, F., Griffith, J. W., Van der Gucht, K., & Williams, J. M. G. (2014). School-based prevention and reduction of depression in adolescents: A cluster-randomized controlled trial of a mindfulness group program. Mindfulness, 5(5), 477–486. Scholar
  44. Raine, A. (2002). Annotation: The role of prefrontal deficits, low automatic arousal, and early health factors in the development of antisocial and aggressive behavior in children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43, 417–434. Scholar
  45. Ruggieri, S., Bendixen, M., Gabriel, U., & Alsaker, F. (2013). Do victimization experiences accentuate reactions to ostracism? An experiment using cyberball. International Journal of Developmental Sciences, 7(1), 25–32. Scholar
  46. Schäfer, J. Ö., Naumann, E., Holmes, E. A., Tuschen-Caffier, B., & Samson, A. C. (2017). Emotion regulation strategies in depressive and anxiety symptoms in youth: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(2), 261–276. Scholar
  47. Sebastian, C., Viding, E., Williams, K. D., & Blakemore, S. J. (2010). Social brain development and the affective consequences of ostracism in adolescence. Brain and Cognition. Scholar
  48. Sentse, M., Prinzie, P., & Salmivalli, C. (2017). Testing the direction of longitudinal paths between victimization, peer rejection, and different types of internalizing problems in adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 45(5), 1013–1023. Scholar
  49. Sigurdson, J. F., Undheim, A. M., Wallander, J. L., Lydersen, S., & Sund, A. M. (2015). The long-term effects of being bullied or a bully in adolescence on externalizing and internalizing mental health problems in adulthood. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 9(1).
  50. Sijtsema, J. J., Shoulberg, E. K., & Murray-Close, D. (2011). Physiological reactivity and different forms of aggression in girls: Moderating roles of rejection sensitivity and peer rejection. Biological Psychology, 86(3), 181–192. Scholar
  51. Solberg, M. E., & Olweus, D. (2003). Prevalence estimation of school bullying with the Olweus bully/victim questionnaire. Aggressive Behavior, 29(3), 239–268. Scholar
  52. Swearer, S. M., & Hymel, S. (2015). Understanding the psychology of bullying: Moving toward a social-ecological diathesis-stress model. American Psychologist, 70(4), 344–353. Scholar
  53. Tabachnick, B. G., & Fidell, L. S. (2013). Using multivariate statistics (6th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.Google Scholar
  54. Tang, Y. Y., Yang, L., Leve, L. D., & Harold, G. T. (2012). Improving executive function and its neurobiological mechanisms through a mindfulness-based intervention: Advances within the field of developmental neuroscience. Child Development Perspectives, 6(4), 361–366. Scholar
  55. Tukey, J. W. (1962). The future of data analysis. The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 33, 1–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Vaillancourt, T., Hymel, S., & McDougall, P. (2013). The biological underpinnings of peer victimization: Understanding why and how the effects of bullying can last a lifetime. Theory into Practice., 52, 241–248. Scholar
  57. Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(6), 1063.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Will, G. J., van Lier, P. A. C., Crone, E. A., & Guroglu, B. (2016). Chronic childhood peer rejection is associated with heightened neural responses to social exclusion during adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44, 43–55. Scholar
  59. Williams, K. D., & Jarvis, B. (2006). Cyberball: A program for use in research on interpersonal ostracism and acceptance. Behavior Research Methods, 38(1), 174–180. Scholar
  60. Zadro, L., Williams, K. D., & Richardson, R. (2004). How low can you go? Ostracism by a computer is sufficient to lower self-reported levels of belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(4), 560–567. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada

Personalised recommendations