What is Toxic Stress?

There’s a lot of discussion about “toxic” things nowadays – toxic people, toxic foods, and more. But toxic stress is a unique thing. This phrase describes a long-lasting stressful pattern, as described below, and it can wreak havoc on your life and health.

Recognizing toxic stress in your own life is the first step in getting back control and banishing that stress pattern to regain your health and happiness.

Toxic stress isn’t so much about the cause of the stress, but about the chronic and ongoing nature of the stress.

Everyone will experience stress. It’s a very normal and healthy part of being human. For children though, a little goes a long way. It is through stressful times that kids learn resilience, determination, optimism and how to soothe themselves when things start to get tough. When stress is managed in the context of loving, stable and caring relationships, where children feel safe and secure, they can get through stressful, traumatic times without scarring.

The fallout from physical or emotional abuse and neglect is obvious, but then there are the more indirect hits, such as chronic conflict in the home, a parent battling addiction, maternal depression, or serious illness. The stress from these doesn’t have to turn toxic but it can. A prime conditions for this happening is when there is no loving, supportive, attentive relationship to buffer the impact. The relationship doesn’t have to be with a parent – any adult can make a powerful difference.

The brain, the body and toxic stress.

When the brain is constantly exposed to a toxic environment, it will shut down to protect itself from that environment. The brain continues working, but it’s rate of growth slows right down, creating a vulnerability to anxiety, depression and less resilience to stress.

Toxic stress affects people across all stages of the life span. The long-term effects will differ depending on the age of the person and the stage of brain development they are at when they are exposed to the stress.

The younger the brain, the more damaging the effects of toxic stress. A prenatal and early childhood brain is growing, developing and absorbing so much of what it is exposed to in the environment. This makes it incredibly vulnerable to chemical influences, such as stress hormones, which can cause long-term changes. Stress during this period will have broad impact, particularly on learning and memory.

Toxic stress during later childhood and adolescence will cause more problems for attention and impulse and emotional control, as these are the parts of the brain that are developing rapidly during this period.

During late adolescence or early adulthood, exposure to toxic stress will create a greater sensitivity to anything stressful and a more intense and enduring stress response.

Exposure to toxic stress during adulthood will intensify the ageing process and affect memory, cognition and emotion.
– via Hey Sigmund

How Your Thoughts Affect Your Stress

For many people, anxiety and stressful patterns come from negative (or even toxic) thinking. By breaking these problematic thought patterns, you can put yourself on the road to better mental, emotional, and physical health.

Toxic thinking patterns and limiting beliefs

Toxic thinking patterns are ones that unnecessarily activate your body’s stress response, or ‘fight or flee’ system. They are not only toxic, but also addictive in nature.

Why? Toxic thinking patterns are characteristically compulsive in nature, associated with defensive strategies that your body activates in response to a stressor. These operate subconsciously, that is, they are automatic.

  • Similar to addictive substances, they stimulate pleasure and learning centers of the brain.
  • They are protective strategies that get activated in response to what triggers you, and thus driven by fear.
  • They are addictive in nature because your body subconsciously associates them with pseudo “feel good” feelings – in other words, ‘tried and true’ ways that it uses to lower your overall stress in the moment, albeit with ineffective, quick-fix ways.
  • They are also habitual, ‘comfortable’ ways of responding, which also produces ‘feel good’ hormones.

Thus, as with addictive substances, it can feel like we ‘need’ them. They feel comfortable. And, because your body activates them at subconscious levels, it can feel as if you cannot stop or control them. In a sense, you cannot – at least not until you take some action to bring the systems of your body back under the charge of your sympathetic nervous system (therefore out of the control of the parasympathetic nervous system). In short, if your body thinks your survival is at stake, your autonomic nervous system is hardwired to take control (a coup d’état of sorts), and block you and your higher cortex self from taking the reins.

When chronic, these reactive thinking patterns can zap your body’s energy supply. How?

  • They cause intense feelings of fear, despair, rage, shame or guilt, and so on.
  • They habitually forecast disaster, perpetuate worry, instill doubt, obsess on perfection, or blame, etc.
  • They paint images of self and others, events and life, with colors of fear, lack, doubt, and, among others, gloom or failure.

Toxic thinking is spawned by underlying limiting beliefs. Beliefs are limiting when they unnecessarily intensify one or more of your core survival-fears, such as rejection, abandonment or inadequacy, and so on. These emotion-laded beliefs exacerbate fears and spawn anxious ways of relating.

Albeit well-meaning, toxic thinking is a life limiting defense strategy. These patterns limit your higher thinking capacity by replacing real thinking with automatic black-and-white or either-or thinking patterns, which by the way are useful to you, but only in real crises situations, such as a physical attack. They lower your tolerance or resiliency to frustration, boredom, discomfort – all of which you need to be able to manage your energies to consciously think, to image, and to to make choices that are aligned with your aspirations.
– via Psych Central.com

Can you see any sources of toxic stress in your life? Do you have negative thought patters causing you to be limited?