What Is Toxic Stress? And How Can It Be Managed?

There is an old saying that claims nothing is certain except death and taxes. These days, however, another certainty should be added to that saying: stress. There always seems to be something that demands our attention. Stress is constant, and no matter how care-free and relaxed we try to live our lives, stress has a way of creeping back in and somehow managing to take over.

But what happens when that stress becomes all-consuming in the way we think and act? Stress is considered toxic when is starts to impact both our physical and mental health. Toxic stress can affect anyone, and it is important that we know what it is, the effects that it has on both our mental and physical well-being, and the ways we can manage it.

toxic stress

What is Toxic Stress?

An easy way to understand the difference between toxic stress and normal, everyday stress is to think of taking a walk in the woods. Most of us are all familiar with the concept of fight or flight—and the not-so-commonly-heard-of freeze—responses when we are in danger. When we are in distress, our brain sends us a signal that we can either fight the danger, run away from the danger, or in some cases, freeze and do nothing.

So, imagine you are in the woods, walking along, and you approach a bear. Your brain will automatically send the fight, flight, or freeze signal to your body in response to seeing the bear. Your heart is going a mile a minute, and your body acts without rational thinking. You run away, fight the bear, or freeze, and you move on with your life. It was a stressful situation, and you handled it; your body can start to regulate itself again.

But what if you ran into that bear every day of your life? That is what toxic stress is like. Being in a constant state of vigilance—with your brain in a persistent, primal state of survival—is what separates toxic stress from normal, everyday stress. People who have little to no autonomy over their life circumstances–such as war veterans, survivors of violence, and children or adults who have been repeatedly abused–are usually those who are more likely to experience toxic stress.

The Health Impacts

When a person experiences stress, the brain sends the body a response signal that triggers a survival reaction. The brain releases cortisol, a stress hormone, that will increase the heart rate and adrenaline level. Cortisol is not a harmful chemical in occasional times of stress or danger, as it helps you get out of harm’s way and keeps you safe.

However, when it comes to toxic stress, the brain is releasing cortisol frequently. Too much cortisol can have lasting effects on both your mental and physical health. Those who have experienced any form of toxic stress are more likely to struggle with depression, PTSD, and other behavioral disorders later in life.

Toxic stress can also have an adverse effect on relationships later in life. This is true especially for those coming from situations of abuse in childhood or prior relationships.

In addition to taking a toll on mental health, toxic stress can also have an effect on one’s physical health. Frequent release of cortisol into the body can elevate the heart rate, which can, in turn, increase the likelihood of developing heart disease.

Those with increased cortisol levels are also more likely to develop other serious diseases, such as cancer, than those who have had little to no toxic stress in their lives. It is important that those who are struggling with toxic stress learn ways of managing that stress before it causes irreversible damage to their overall physical health .

Managing Toxic Stress

The most effective way of managing toxic stress is to simply leave the situation. If the bear is always on the same road that you take home, the easiest way to avoid the bear is to take another path. However, in some cases, such as those in situations of domestic abuse or violence, simply walking out the door and leaving may not be a safe, viable option.

One solution that psychologists have turned to in helping those who are struggling with toxic stress is to build resiliency. Resiliency is the degree to which we can effectively deal with the stress in our lives. Both children and adults can be taught strategies to help them to deal with the adverse situations in their lives that are beyond their control. By adopting these strategies and perhaps developing their own methods for dealing with the toxic stress, abuse victims can increase their resiliency.

In addition to improving resilience, those suffering from toxic stress might be able to identify certain stress inducers that are within their control. By finding ways to reduce or eliminate those controllable stress inducers, the remaining toxic stress, which cannot be controlled without taking extreme measures, may have a less adverse effect on their mental or physical health.

In most cases of toxic stress, people will need help in one form or another. Whether that is to leave the situation or to merely cope with the stress, it is important to turn to someone else for help before serious mental or physical health issues develop.

Perhaps a close friend or family member can help you remove yourself from the situation. If you can’t depend on someone you know to help you leave, then you might consider seeking the help of a professional therapist. While they may not be able to change the situation that you are in, they can help you develop coping strategies. A therapist can also help you manage your reactions to stress, which can lead to a more positive and healthy life.

If you would like to work with someone to develop strategies for coping with the stress in your life, contact Keri Powell Therapy today. We will help you find the right therapist for your situation.