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  • Hannah Whitley, LCSW

How to Break Free From Toxic Stress

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Most of us are no stranger to stress. For many of us we see stress as a part of our lives that we just have to deal with. But when does a normal and tolerable amount of stress turn into stress that is chronic or toxic? And how does long term exposure to stress impact our health and wellbeing?

April is Stress Awareness month, and we want to help you learn to differentiate between good stress, tolerable stress, and chronic/toxic stress, as well as learn how to better manage your stress to prevent long term negative effects of stress.

Different Types of Stress

While you’re probably very familiar with stress, you may not know that there are actually different types of stress that impact us in different ways.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), there are three different types of stress: Positive stress, Tolerable stress, and Chronic/Toxic stress.

Positive stress is a short term, biochemical reaction that occurs in response to a mild stressor that gives us motivation and resilience. For example, the pressure we feel to finish an upcoming project for work, or the temporary discomfort of trying out a new experience. The key to positive stress is that it is mild, short term, and leads to a positive outcome.

Tolerable stress has a higher severity or frequency, which warrants a greater biological response. However, once the stressor has been removed, our brain and body fully recovers and we return back to our baseline. Some examples of tolerable stress include the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster.

Chronic or Toxic stress is what occurs when exposure to stressors is long term, and our body remains in a stress response over a long period of time, causing long term impacts on the brain and body. Examples of toxic stress can include financial insecurity, community or domestic violence, a toxic workplace, abuse or neglect, household dysfunction, and other stressors that are ongoing or high in severity.

How Chronic Stress impacts the Body

When your body experiences one of these three types of stress, we automatically go into a stress response, during which the adrenal gland releases a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. According to Mayo Clinic, “Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.” Cortisol, “increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues… [and also] alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes.”

When we experience Chronic, or Toxic stress, our body remains in a stress response long term, meaning that our bodies become overexposed to Cortisol and adrenaline, which disrupts our bodies natural processes. Long term effects of Chronic stress and Cortisol exposure include anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive problems, sleep problems, weight gain, headaches, muscle tension/pain, and impairment of memory and concentration. Chronic stress also weakens the immune system, and increases the risk for cancer and disease.

Children and Chronic Stress

Although we typically think of stress as a problem for adults, children can experience toxic stress as well. Children are at risk to the same types of chronic stressors as adults. When children remain in a prolonged stress response, the child’s development is impacted and can have lasting effects into adulthood.

Childhood toxic stress can impact the development of brain structures and vital organs, and lead to disease and cognitive impairments. Children exposed to toxic stress are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, poor stress management, and maladaptive coping (such as substance abuse), throughout their lifetime, as well as an increased risk for disease and cancer.

Tips for Managing Stress

Stress can’t always be avoided, it is a part of our lives, but there are things that we can do to better manage our stress.

First, identify your stressors, and eliminate what you can. Although we can’t always eliminate our stressors, there may be some that we are able to minimize or eliminate. For example, we may be able to set firmer boundaries around work, and practice saying no to taking on additional responsibilities that we can’t manage, or leaving on time and not taking work home.

Another way to reduce our stress can be to ask for help- are there things your partner can take on around the house to lighten your load? Can you enlist the help of friends or family to entertain the kids while you check off some items on your to-do list?

Second, identify how you can take care of yourself, physically and emotionally, in response to stressors that can’t be eliminated. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and regular preventative medical care can help to mitigate the negative impacts of chronic stress.

Other ways to manage stress are making time for family and friends, engaging in enjoyable hobbies, and using healthy coping tools such as journaling or meditation. Practicing yoga, getting a massage, or working with an acupuncturist or Reiki specialist can also help to reduce the negative impacts of stress.

Exercise and yoga/meditation can be especially helpful for those who experienced chronic stress in the past, as they can help the body to return to its baseline functioning, and help us to learn how to regulate the body out of a stress response when stressors are no longer present.

If you’re currently experiencing Chronic or Toxic stress, or experienced toxic stress during childhood, working with a licensed psychotherapist can help you to learn healthy coping strategies, and work through the psychological impacts of long term chronic stress. A therapist can also help connect you to resources in the community if you are experiencing toxic stressors such as abuse, community or domestic violence, or financial and/or food insecurity.




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