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07-25-2012

Clarkson University's Jennifer Knack Studies Bullying and Health

Jennifer Knack, an assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University, is as curious as the rest of us about the prevalence of bullying these days, and her study of it is drawing interest outside of the classroom.

Jennifer KnackWhy is it, she wondered, that some people who experience chronic stress will develop multiple medical conditions and illnesses, while others are able to adapt? Going a step further, what can researchers learn that will help the victims of bullying and other aggressive acts?

“I’ve always been interested in relationships and in grad school I learned how relationships can actually affect your physical health," says Knack. "Bullying is of interest to me because some of my friends have been a target of peer aggression. This idea that our relationships can be associated with what our hormones are doing and can affect our physical health makes me want to learn more and understand it.”

Since she joined the psychology department at Clarkson last year, she’s been researching and writing on bullying and health. Naturally, being bullied or beaten up is bad for you, but she’s talking about hormonal changes that in turn lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, abdominal pains, headaches, and joint pain.

The Journal of Applied Social Psychology published an article Knack wrote about a study she did involving college students. The popular press has been picking up on it and Yahoo quoted her work in a health article late this spring. It also mentioned an article she wrote for Brain and Cognition involving adolescents.

“We gave adolescents several questionnaires on peer aggression, social relationships, and health. Adolescents also provided saliva samples, so we could measure cortisol levels," she says. "There’s evidence that the level of cortisol is related to being bullied and that in turn is linked with health problems. Cortisol is considered ‘the stress hormone’ because its levels typically increase during a major stressor. Yet if a person is under chronic stress, cortisol levels actually are lower, so the theory is that the body learns to cope.”

The body breaks down if cortisol levels are too high, she explains. An interesting but unexpected fact is that some young people who have been bullied for a long time seem to have lower levels of cortisol. Unfortunately, lower levels also are linked to health problems.

“My research tries to understand why some people who are bullied get sick and others don’t," says Knack. "Is it a personality factor, or something in their bodies? Is it because of social support? We need to find out who’s at risk of developing health problems and come up with ways to intervene and reduce risk."

Knack grew up in Hortonville, N.Y., near the Pennsylvania border. She attended graduate school in Texas, and then did postdoctoral studies in Ottawa before accepting a position at Clarkson last year.

“My work here offers such a good fit of balancing teaching and research. You can do both; that’s why I’m here,” she says.

Clarkson University launches leaders into the global economy. One in five alumni already leads as a CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. Located just outside the Adirondack Park in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university for undergraduates with select graduate programs in signature areas of academic excellence directed toward the world’s pressing issues. Through 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, sciences and health sciences, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo, and connect discovery and engineering innovation with enterprise.

[A photograph for media use is available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/jknack.jpg .]

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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