Stress & Toxic Stress Are Actually Two Different Things, & Here’s How Experts Say To Tell Them Apart

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Most people consider stress a fact of life, the same way mediocre internet is an immutable constant, and try not to devote any more brain space to it than they have to. But many of us might actually be dealing with more than one kind of stress, experts say: there's a very real distinction between “stress” and “toxic stress."

"Normal stress will cease after the occurrence is over — it tends to be self-limiting," Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, M.D., the chief medical officer for American Addiction Centers, tells Bustle. "Toxic stress takes the natural, involuntary stress response we all have, and extends it for a period of time."

Dr. Casey Green, M.D., the medical director of Greenhouse Treatment Center in Grand Prairie, Texas, says that unlike regular stress, many of the situations that cause toxic stress can feel “inescapable.” While Green explains that common stress factors include changes to your work or routine, toxic stress factors may include trauma, a life-changing event, and “persistent exposure to abuse, neglect, violence and poverty.”

Why does the difference matter? Because each kind of stress has effects on your body you should pay attention to. A 2013 study in rats conducted by researchers at University of California, Berkeley, discovered that experiencing stress now and again may actually boost your brain health by making you more alert. But regularly feeling stressed is can hurt your mental health and physical well-being. In fact, a 2018 study published in Psychological Science (APS) found that minor, daily stressors can negatively impact your health even after a decade.

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“Different people cope with stress in different ways and how we deal with stress often relates to our general health," Dr. Robert Segal, M.D., the founder of Manhattan Cardiology and co-founder of LabFinder.com, says. "Some tend to drink too much alcohol, or participate in other unhealthy behaviors that can increase the risk of heart disease and impact your heart health negatively.” According to the American Institute of Stress, prolonged exposure to stress is linked to digestive issues, headaches, body aches, a weakened immune system, worsening of pre-existing conditions like asthma, and irregular periods.

Toxic stress poses an even greater risk to your health in the long run. Weinstein says that cortisol — aka, the hormone your body releases in response to stress — is largely to blame. “The hormone, in excess, can cause a decrease in brain volume, negatively affect the hippocampus region of the brain, and reduce the size of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making and self-control,” Weinstein explains. “The degeneration of these areas can lead to depression, anxiety, loss of brain synapses, gradual memory impairment, dementia, and other neuropsychiatric disorders.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), children who experienced four or more “toxically stressful” events were found to be three times more like to develop depression, and four times more likely to develop a substance use disorder than the general population. Sleep disorders and poor dental health are common among adults who experienced the kinds of traumatic situations that cause toxic stress, as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) writes.

Green explains that the “duration [of stress] can be decreased by coping skills or protective relationships.” Though coping mechanisms for dealing with stress will be different for everyone, developing a sense of community, establishing a good self-care routine, practicing mindfulness and gratitude, and reframing your perspective are some places to start. Of course, seeking out the support of a mental health professional and physician is never a bad idea.

The main difference to keep in mind is that — while any kind of stress is unpleasant to experience — toxic stress specifically refers to stress that is ongoing, unavoidable, and developmentally damaging. By understanding how these two types of stress differ, you’ll be more aware of how past and present stressful situations have affected you — and you’ll be able to seek out the appropriate support.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.

Experts cited:

Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, M.D., the chief medical officer for American Addiction Centers

Dr. Casey Green, M.D., the medical director of Greenhouse Treatment Center in Grand Prairie, Texas

Dr. Robert Segal, M.D., the founder of Manhattan Cardiology and co-founder of LabFinder.com

Studies Referenced:

Kirby, E. D., Muroy, S. E., Sun, W. G., Covarrubias, D., Leong, M. J., Barchas, L. A., & Kaufer, D. (2013). Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2. ELife, 2. doi: 10.7554/elife.00362

Leger, K. A., Charles, S. T., & Almeida, D. M. (2018). Let It Go: Lingering Negative Affect in Response to Daily Stressors Is Associated With Physical Health Years Later. Psychological Science, 29(8), 1283–1290. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618763097

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