The Machine or Me? The Subtle but Deadly Impact of Toxic Stress on Mental Health

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**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

Toxic Stress

This short article intends to explore hidden sources of toxic stress in everyday life. These include the conscious and unconscious choices made (daily) by individuals that promote toxic stresses in themselves and others, the unfortunate physical and psychological consequences frequently associated with toxic stress (e.g., auto-immune diseases, depression disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, etc.) and commonly disregarded factors underlying toxic stress.

The article works from the idea that toxic stress occurs when there is overexposure to threat, perceived threat, and other demands (emotional or otherwise) beyond an individual’s perceived ability to cope and function. It likewise follows the generally accepted premise that toxic stress has a cumulatively harmful effect on body, mind, spirit, relationship, family and community when it remains unaddressed over periods of time.

But what in the world would lead us to do this to ourselves and each other? What in the world would contribute to a vulnerability to have these kinds of stresses? These are important questions and will be considered.

One source of toxic stress is in relationships when there is poor listening and insisting on being right rather than focusing on problem-solving. When this happens, there is a tendency to escalate each other’s emotions irresponsibly, triggering our bodies to react as though real threat were occurring when in fact it isn’t. Hurtful feelings continue to get triggered and escalate (or repressed) as people experience and react to assumptions of his or her own making (e.g., “I guess I am not worth listening to!”; “he must think I am stupid!”).

Another source of toxic stress is when children are attacked verbally or physically by frustrated parents incapable of managing their own emotions, resulting in their little bodies being conditioned to remain in “threat mode.” When mommy and daddy get angry, the likelihood for the child to feel scared, guilty and rejected, is elevated. Since children can never know exactly when their presence or actions will trigger an emotional eruption in their caregivers, they will very often look for signs and anxiously await more anger from the parent, therefore remaining “stressed out” much the time.

There are so many ways that toxic stress can rear its ugly head in everyday life and eventually manifest in physical and mental disorder that the best advice is to refer the reader to relevant books on the topic to gain a real appreciation. I suggest checking out “When The Body Says No” by Dr. Gabor Mate, “Scared Sick” by Robin Karr-Morse, and “Running on Empty” by Dr. Jonice Webb.

Toxic StressWhen we turn on the body’s threat system repeatedly and unnecessarily (when there isn’t any real threat), ESPECIALLY IN CHILDREN, stress hormones get over-released and shut down and disrupt both brain and body systems from optimal functioning and development. Eventually, people become ill-equipped at recognizing differences between real -versus- perceived danger. They become desensitized and assume they are most often in danger – staying anxious, thinking the worst, and reacting accordingly (fight, flight, freeze) – even when they are, in fact, safe.

As a result of the many histories I have collected from patients, it seems crystal clear that a brain exposed to stressing and neglectful environments in the early developmental stages of life will not be adequately “brain-prepared” for adult life. Likewise, ongoing exposure to dysfunctional and neglectful environments in adult life continues to stunt rational thinking and interferes with problem-solving and overall functioning.

When we are with one another in day-to-day life, it seems we are either facilitating or not facilitating the conditions for optimal functioning. Either we create a careful, skillful, and psychologically toxic-free environment with each other, or we do not. The degree to which we are mindful and aware of ourselves in the process of life to limit psychological toxicity is where things can go wrong, and they do. In other words, many people have no idea what it means to be “mindful.”

But how does it get to the point of becoming psychologically toxic in the first place? How do people in the first place become so “unmindful,” so oblivious to the harms that they do – both to self and others? One has to wonder: If every emotional and psychological abuse committed to self and others because more apparent, and the consequences of the abuses better understood, would they continue to happen with the same frequency?

Regardless, since it is becoming painfully evident to mental health workers that many of us go through life blind to the psychological and emotional abuses we so often commit, the next question becomes: why so much neglect to learning self-awareness and other mental health promoting skills.

One possibility is how priorities have been arranged in the modern world, for instance putting questionably important things above essential learning needed to function as emotional beings in relationships with other emotional beings in a complicated world. Sadly, in the western world at least, much of our attention seems drawn to acquiring the many material things we believe are needed to help ourselves and children experience a joyful life. Many think that achieving a particular status or bank account balance will remedy life’s difficulties. Others are convinced that going on regular vacations or accommodating specific hobbies/interests/activities must occur to maintain health and well-being. Many others are hyper-focused on studying and conforming to religious ideas, believing that their dedication and obedience to religious law somehow absolves them from the need for other learning. Because each of the above mentioned can deliver, at least temporarily, on some level of numbing or “contentment,” avenues of neglect for learning things most essential for sustainable mental health functioning remains wide open.

However, the unfortunate reality seems to be that commonly endorsed and prioritized belief systems (as above) DO NOT eliminate toxic stresses or otherwise set the conditions for optimal development, mental and relational health. What the belief systems often do is actively misguide people, convincing them that they don’t need to learn or practice anything new (it feels pretty good to buy a new truck, right?) to live a healthy life.


In this way, people become slaves to their bottomless pits, and likewise to the industrial machinery set up by the modern world. The belief and pattern proceeds such that every time life starts to get stressful and toxic, all one needs to do is invest more energy and time into the objects, materials, or hollow activities that work to bring some temporary relief. In many cases, a person ends up consuming so much time and attention to their bottomless pits that there is little space left over to sit and ponder.

After all, it is hard work living in these conditions! There are places to go, tasks to complete, people to please, people to see! There are new apps to download, things to purchase! Indeed, after all that effort and investment into the bottomless pit, how much energy is left over for learning about healthy relationships and parenting anyway?

So the next time you are surprised by seemingly unnatural episodes of dysfunction in yourself or others (physically, emotionally, mentally, or relationally), you might want to take a moment to pause and get curious about our belief systems and how they affect our priorities, our lifestyles, and openness to learning. You might want to consider how much of our daily lives fall into the bottomless pit category, and if our stress-relief activities make us more like slaves and addicts, or like individuals who are balanced and liberated from such things.

One thing seems to be consistent: The industrial machine that surrounds every person in the western world has as its highest priority to sell products and increase capital. The industrial machine does not make it a priority to ensure healthy emotional development (in children, in adults, in families) even though it is prepared to punish for the consequences of neglect to development. Yes indeed, the jails are always packed. But when our eyes are finally opened, it becomes sadly apparent that people are enticed and even conned into choosing the industrial machine over their health and welfare, over and over again. It is subtle, but it is there. And it is ongoing.







photo credit: Day 150 – Holding My Head Together via photopin (license)
photo credit: Day 50 Occupy Wall Street November 5 2011 Shankbone 2 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Deep blue eyes via photopin (license)
photo credit: A stretch via photopin (license)


Thank you for reading! Please share to help us raise mental health awareness.