The mind-body connection, in all its interconnected glory, explains why the stress of toxic relationships is so detrimental to our overall wellness. Basically, toxic relationships don't just feel like getting punched in the face; they pose physical risks, too.
Shahida Arabi, MSW, best-selling author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, explains, "It is common for toxic relationships to not only affect the mind and spirit but also the body. Not only can we become biochemically addicted to the chronic highs and lows of a toxic relationship; trauma takes its toll on our physical well-being."
As Arabi explains, there are numerous physical manifestations commonly seen in survivors of toxic relationships. She continues, "So many people have told me that they have struggled with health issues in the aftermath of a [toxic] relationship. They might gain or lose a significant amount of weight, struggle with sleep issues, or even develop chronic health conditions as a result of the stress. They are also likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, as these relationships can affect our mental health. Our immune system and psyche both take a hit from the impact of the toxicity."
We all encounter toxic people, but not all will remain trapped within the unhealthy dynamic. The term "toxic relationship" probably makes you think of a narcissistic ex or a high-maintenance friend. But bullies, whose power comes from hijacking your emotions, exist everywhere—within families, social groups, the workplace, and out in the world. All too often, it is the sensitive, empathetic personality type that gets pulled into the drama.
Take it from me. When I told my friend Alisha the news that I am an estranged aunt at 30, she burst out laughing. I don't blame her. I never expected to be estranged from anyone, let alone my long-term boyfriend's newborn nephew. But after enduring five-plus years with the baby's parents (think emotional sinkhole versus meeting of the minds), I'll take it. All the snubs, slander, and ostracism later, I truly DGAF by now—but only because I set firm boundaries and emotionally separated from them completely. Their response? I am not welcome in their child's life unless I am a constant fixture in theirs. Hard no.
Before going "no-contact"—a tactic championed by Arabi—I felt drained but never knew what to do. We moved cities twice, explicitly to avoid drama, and once kept our relationship secret for close to a year. The turning point came following a visit to my naturopath when I revealed how physically burdened I had been feeling. Her response was that your brain doesn't know the difference between physical and emotional trauma, the understanding of which straight-up changed my life. For the first time, I experientially understood that taking part in the strained relationships was causing actual strain to my body.
Whether you are covertly guilt-tripped into attendance with no consideration for other demands on your time or you are overtly called names, belittled, or verbally abused, their boundary violations are out of line. At the core of their behavior lies a fundamental disrespect for your autonomy, a failure to grasp others' rights to self-determination.
As a colleague used to say, "You can't rationalize crazy." However, to figure out if a relationship is toxic or not, ask yourself, "Am I harming me to help you?" If the answer is yes, it's time to get serious about the consequences. Any time you subject yourself to harm to appease someone else is unhealthy. And FTR, no one should ask you to sacrifice your wellness.
The most effective way to limit your exposure to pathologically overbearing personality types is to set enforceable boundaries that minimize their access to you. It's better safe than sorry, as long-term emotional abuse is linked to mental health symptoms including panic attacks, anxiety, and depression.
If you are struggling with toxic relationships in your life, know that the emotional war you are waging inside is taking a very real toll on your body. To give you a sense of how serious toxic relationships are for your health, Josh Axe, DC, DNM, CNS, founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com, breaks it down for us.
Here are five ways toxic relationships are literally bad for your health, according to an expert.
1. Your physiological fight-or-flight response yields the same biological reaction, whether triggered by an angry mama bear or a malignant narcissist
"Our bodies view both physical and mental stressors as 'threats,' and they try to keep us safe when threatened in the same ways—regardless of the type of stress we are up against," Axe shares.
"When we talk about feeling 'stressed,' we are simply describing our reaction to physical and mental life experiences, which can certainly include toxic relationships that leave us feeling drained," he says. "We experience changes in our bodies when stressed because this is our instinctual way of dealing with serious situations and attempting to overcome them."
2. Even our thoughts, worries, and fears—like those we feel when we rehash past tiffs with toxic people—trigger far-reaching hormonal changes in our bodies
"As humans, we adapted to respond to threats by fighting or fleeing, both literally or figuratively. Some researchers refer to our instinctual stress response as metabolic overdrive due to the hormonal changes that stress causes in our physiology," Axe begins.
This all stems from the hypothalamus, the so-called command center of the brain which is responsible for hormonal balance. As such, it's the area of the brain that responds most to stress.
"Secretions of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, flood the body during times of stress, whether mental or physical, which has many effects on how we feel and operate," says Axe. "For example, cardio-metabolic changes take place when we are in distress, such as our blood sugar increasing and heart rate becoming more rapid. These can happen whether you are physically in danger or just simply worrying or feeling depressed. Our livers, digestive organs, and reproductive systems also operate differently in response to increased stress hormones in our bloodstream."
3. Emotional distress caused by toxic relationships negatively impacts our health immediately
Insomnia, increased blood pressure, muscle tension, even lowered immune function: These are just some of the potential physiological side effects of an emotionally draining relationship in your life. For this reason, it's worth paying close attention to how the people in your life make you feel—emotionally, yes, but physically as well. It's all connected.
4. The longer your exposure to the emotional distress, the more serious the negative health impact
Axe names chronic anxiety, hormonal imbalances, and gastrointestinal issues as some of the potential long-term effects of such emotional distress.
5. With all this in mind, stress-reduction is a crucial part of any wellness regimen—especially if you're dealing with a toxic relationship
"The bottom line is that you can eat a healthy diet, exercise, and take supplements, but if you're battling chronic stress, you're still going to feel run-down, fatigued, moody, and unwell," says Axe. "When your mind is constantly stressed, it affects the body's ability to regulate inflammation, which is the root of many diseases. This is why it's crucial to find ways to relax and unwind so your body can start to heal and return to normal."
This is especially true if cutting ties from the emotional stressor is not a possibility—with family, for example, things might be a little more complicated. Either way, be proactive about your self-care routine. Journal; work out; go to therapy. Build your good-mood toolkit. Be cognizant of how your mind and body are feeling.
Axe also recommends trying bodywork techniques like acupuncture since it addresses that mind-body feedback loop in one go. "When we receive bodywork—like massages, acupuncture treatments, or chiropractic adjustments—we release certain feel-good hormones, including oxytocin," he says. "Oxytocin and other similar hormones are also known as the 'love hormones' and the 'cuddle chemicals.' These hormones help us feel more connected and relaxed."
Nothing is more important than your wellness, and no one should ever come between you and your health. It can help to think of access to you as being earned. For more assistance in dealing with toxic individuals in your life, Self Care Haven is another excellent resource for survivors of mistreatment and abuse.