When Good Stress Turns Toxic
Is all stress bad?
Signed: Wanting To Be Stress Free
Dear Wanting To Be Stress Free,
Great question – the answer is absolutely not! In general, stress can be broken into 3 main categories. There is Positive Stress (also sometimes known as Eustress), Negative Stress and Toxic Stress. And believe it or not, we need to have some stress (positive stress) in our life, or we will find ourselves just as susceptible to anxiety and depression, a lack of motivation or low energy, and a feeling of being “lost” or just treading water (not moving in a direction that excites us) as we would experience if we were drowning in too much stress.
Stress is defined as anything that requires us to burn energy in order to keep internal systems (physical, mental, emotional) running smoothly. It is explained as a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources available to them (taken from http://www.stress.org/Definition_of_stress.htm). It is the the body’s reaction to a change/challenge that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response. Stress allows our brains to grow – we need it in our lives, as long as it has the proper balance and doesn’t exceed our ability to cope (remembering that coping can sometimes still be a challenge or feel uncomfortable).
When the positive stress becomes greater than our ability to cope it becomes negative stress and we need to reach out for external supports. Our willingness to do this plays a huge part in determining whether this negative stress (sometimes known as tolerable stress) will shift into toxic stress. If we have not built a support network around ourselves, or if we are reluctant to reach out to our network when we are feeling the burdens of negative stress, then we stop the necessary growth that should be happening and find ourselves stuck in some unhealthy feelings/patterns. We often struggle with the thoughts in our heads that tell us we need to be “strong” and “independent”- or that say that asking for help is a sign of failure – or that make us feel like we will be judged poorly or “less than” if we show need and vulnerability. These unhealthy thoughts can push us into a life that is filled with long term toxic stress patterns.
Toxic stress is the result of a repeated lack of healthy supports and ongoing negative messages. This kind of stress actually causes damage to our brains. Our brain development may not progress appropriately (during childhood years especially) or the wiring of the brain becomes faulty (quite self-abusive and unhealthy). And these patterns begin to manifest through various warning signs – like addiction issues, mental health problems (anxiety, depression, etc), violence, control issues, and constant chaos/crisis all around us. We will find it hard to feel true happiness in life; our relationships will suffer; and it may become difficult to connect within/trust our own self.
When we are living with toxic stress patterns, we have two choices: we can try to remove the stress influences (avoid the causes of the stress; stop engaging with the very things that could also bring us happiness) or we can learn how to manage the stress in more healthy ways. We have the ability to move the stress from a toxic level back towards positive stress level again. It takes work and real change with how we process our thoughts and feelings. It takes some healing of old wounds/damage in the brain. But toxic stress does not have to become a permanent lifestyle experience. The choice is ours to make at any age.