Some stress and anxiety are part of coping with everyday life.
Prolonged stress is hard on our bodies and our mental health, but with support and resources, we can generally cope.
Toxic stress, like living through a pandemic with existing health issues, mental illness, isolated in a home with with unhealthy relationships, or other chronic and severe stress has the potential to impact mind and body long-term.
The effects from all of these forms of stress can be minimized by leaning into our social connections (or making a new supportive connection via a counselor or psychotherapist) and through finding ways to move, create, express ourselves, care for ourselves, and play- even in the midst of intensely stressful times.
Three Types of Stress
While not typically enjoyable, most everyone experiences stress in one way or another on a regular basis- and it actually helps us get through life.
From running late to a meeting to facing a challenging task at work, you might notice positive stress responses as a rise in anxiety that resolves once the task is completed or the meeting attended. It might show up as butterflies in your stomach before saying something hard to someone you love, but that goes away once you’ve worked through the issue with them. In other words, positive stress rises and resolves rather quickly.
According to researchers, positive stress is essential for growth in childhood as it helps build motivation and resilience through biochemical reactions that occur in the process. A healthy amount of stress in childhood (like doing age-appropriate hard things without a parent swooping in too quickly to solve a problem) actually trains kids’ brains how to move from a dysregulated state to a regulated state- a skilled called emotional regulation.
The second type of stress researchers have identified is tolerable stress. This type of stress is longer-lasting and/or frequently experienced. Examples of tolerable stress include time-limited experiences (like losing a job or being on the hunt for a new place to live) or stressful experiences that recur over and over (like living with a marginalized identity or living in a neighborhood where you don’t always feel safe).
Tolerable stress has a more significant biochemical effect on the body, and over time tolerable stress can wear on the body in the long-run via an increased Allostatic Load.
If the tolerable stressor can be worked through or resolved, the body can emotionally and physically move back to a baseline of health.
One way tolerable stress can be mitigated is through healthy relationships – whether with loved ones or even in therapy.
Toxic stress is the third type of stress researchers have identified.
This type of stress requires a continued and exhaustive biochemical response from the body that is difficult to recover from fully. Because the body remains in an activated state, genetic (and epigenetic) factors may be impacted and various bodily systems may suffer as a result – such as brain development for young ages experiencing toxic stress or immune system dysregulation in any age. Toxic stress can occur through situations of abuse or neglect, resource scarcity (like food insecurity), ongoing exposure to violence, or extreme poverty and/or financial and housing hardships. Often it is not one source that feeds into toxic stress, but multiple sources, which causes the resolution process to be that much more complex.
Download this Types of Stress Printable PDF
How to Navigate Stress
Effectively navigating stress truly depends on the type of stress experienced:
- Positive stress can be navigated easily by most individuals.
- Monitor your self-talk and choose to speak to yourself in an encouraging way.
- Don’t avoid the source of stress, if avoiding it will cause more stress.
- Ask for extra support from loved ones.
- Plan a way to relax when the stressor is overcome
- Tolerable stress is challenging to cope with, but tolerable if it’s time-limited.
- If possible, consider how you can make changes to reduce stress (i.e. a job change, new relationship boundaries, or reaching out for assistance)
- Consider counseling or therapy or support in coping.
- Avoid coping through substance use, as tolerable stress may increase the chances of developing an addiction.
- Seek community and connections with others going through similar expereinces.
- Toxic stress can be overwhelming and requires that we respond appropriately.
- Focusing on essentials: food, safety, and a place to sleep.
- If possible, taking a leave of absense from work.
- Alerting friends and family that you acutely need their support in tangible ways.
Life throws us stressors in different forms. Stress can range from new experiences that raise our blood pressure and biochemical responses to more sustained experiences like navigating unexpected life changes. If navigated well (through leaning on healthy relationships or using adaptive coping skills) not all stress is detrimental. However, if stress is intense and chronic, it can lead to a variety of lasting effects.
Franke HA. Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children. 2014; 1(3):390-402. https://doi.org/10.3390/children1030390