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

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Stress is something that everyone experiences from time to time, but, did you know that there are different kinds of stress? Many people use the terms “stress” and “toxic stress” interchangeably. However, experts say that stress and toxic are actually not the same thing — and that toxic stress comes with its own distinctive set of health problems.

According to Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, the Chief Medical Officer for American Addiction Centers, one of the dissimilarities between these two types of stress can be boiled down to the length of time you're exposed to a stressful situation. "Normal stress will cease after the occurrence is over — it tends to be self-limiting," he tells Bustle. "Toxic stress takes the natural, involuntary stress response we all have, and extends it for a period of time."

Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also offers up a simple definition of toxic stress, saying that the term describes "periods of extreme and repetitive stress," and reports that toxic stress is particularly common for children to experience.

Dr. Casey Green, the Medical Director at 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.”

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A 2013 study conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley discovered experiencing stress now and again may actually boost your brain health — increasing alertness, and therefore improving your performance. Yet, regularly feeling stressed is majorly detrimental to your mental health and physical wellness. In fact, a 2018 study found that minor, daily stressors can negatively impact your health even after a decade.

Unsurprisingly, toxic stress poses an even greater risk to your health in the long run. Why? 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.

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What’s more, toxic stress can cause a host of physical health issues — some of which may be chronic. “Different people cope with stress in different ways and how we deal with stress often relates to our general health [...] 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,” Dr. Robert Segal, the founder of Manhattan Cardiology and co-founder of LabFinder.com, says. 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. Moreover, sleep disorders and poor dental health are common among adults who experienced adverse childhood experiences (aka, traumatic situations that cause toxic stress), as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration writes.

As daunting as it sounds, it’s possible to overcome the effects of both normal and toxic stress. Green explains that the “duration [of stressed] can be decreased by coping skills, or protective relationships.” Though coping mechanisms for dealing with stress will be unique to each and every individual, experts say that developing a sense of community, establishing a good self-care routine, practicing mindfulness and gratitude, and reframing your perspective are great places to start. Of course, seeking out the help of a mental health professional and physician (if you’re experiencing physical symptoms from stress) 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.