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


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.

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Fig. 1


  1. Note that SCL was measured using 10s epochs, whereas RSA was measured using 30s epochs. RSA measures the variability in heart rate between inhalations and exhalations; thus multiple heart beats must be captured for a stable estimate.

  2. When a continuous measure of depressive symptoms is used as the outcome, the interaction term between RSA and victimization is no longer significant. However, the pattern of results is the same, such that the relationship between victimization and depressive symptoms is significant only when RSA reactivity was low (b = 0.40, p = 0.01).When RSA reactivity is high, the link between victimization is no longer significant (b = 0.24, p = 0.12).


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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.

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Correspondence to Laura J. Lambe.

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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.

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Lambe, L.J., Craig, W.M. & Hollenstein, T. Blunted Physiological Stress Reactivity among Youth with a History of Bullying and Victimization: Links to Depressive Symptoms. J Abnorm Child Psychol 47, 1981–1993 (2019).

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  • Bullying
  • Victimization
  • Stress
  • Cyberball
  • Depression
  • Adolescence