Episode #12: Understanding the Difference Between Stress and Toxic Stress

Our body processes "good" stress and "bad" stress the same way. In other words, it cannot tell the difference. And some would say that stress is neither inherently good OR bad. Toxic stress isn't actually about the source of the stress, but about the chronic and ongoing nature of the stress. When the body does not have the opportunity to adequately recover from the physiological stress response, breakdowns begin to occur--affecting our emotional, mental, and physical well-being--ultimately causing chronic and sometimes terminal illness. The longer we wait to change the habits and to correct the imbalances, the longer it will take to fully heal from the damage caused by toxic stress.


Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.

Today I want to talk about the difference between stress and toxic stress.

Over the years I have come across people who have different philosophies about stress . . . stress is good, stress is bad, stress is a necessary evil . . .

And the truth is that stress can be both good AND bad. It can help build capacity and resilience and it can also break down the systems in the body and prevent them from functioning properly.

Where I see this in my work with clients and in my own life is when someone who has been a high performer all of their lives loses their mojo and cannot figure out why . . . and even more than that, why they can’t just “bounce back” and “power through” like they used to.

Early in my career, on more than one occasion, I worked myself to the point that I would pass out or almost pass out in the shower while getting ready for work. But, I had no other demonstrable illness. I would just get up one morning and pass out. The first time it happened, I thought, hmm, that must be my signal that I need to take a day off. Looking back I think, what other signals must my body have been giving me over that time that I completely  ignored to the point that passing out was the next choice?!?!

So, I would take a day off. A WHOLE DAY OFF. And then I would go back to work the next day. I didn’t change my habits, patterns, recovery activities or my expectations of myself. I simply expected (and for years frankly could get away with) taking one day off and then jumping back in full force.

A few years later, though, I developed chronic sinus infections. I remember the day I cried in the allergist’s office because he basically said to me . . . “I don’t see anything wrong with you.” And I said, “then why do I feel so bad?” It was only a CT Scan than revealed the infection deep in my sinuses that MONTHS of antibiotics could not clear.

For many years, every time I got sick, I would take enough time off to go to the doctor, go pick up some antibiotics, maybe take the afternoon off, and then I would go back to work the next day.

I had sinus surgery on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and was back in the office on Monday.

I had laparoscopic surgery for stage IV endometriosis and went to a meeting the next day; not that I remember anything about that meeting. It took me 6 months to full heal from that surgery, and I believe it is in part due to the fact that I never actually gave myself time to heal. And as I am recording this, it is Endometriosis Awareness Month, so just a shout out to any of you who may be suffering because I know that struggle.

Fast forward several years, and I didn’t get just one minor infection or just one infection at a time--I would get three or four--staph, bronchitis, pleurisy, RSV . . . and so on.

As time went on and the ailments compounded, I wasn’t able to get away with just taking ONE day off. And I remember the whining in my own head and probably to my Mom as I would exclaim with surprise . . . “Why don’t I feel better?!?! I took a whole day off?!?!”

I remember getting to the place when 3 workouts a week at the gym, almost absolute predictability, would result in me getting sick. And it was my Crossfit coach at the time who told me something I had never heard before . . .

He said, “Your body cannot tell the difference between ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress.” Stress has the same physiological response . . . whether we perceive it as good or bad. And if you are already stressed or overstressed in other areas of your life (or you have overstressed physically), working out actually may not be helpful in that moment because that is where illness and injuries occur. And I found it to be true in my own life . . . I went from doing half-marathons, olympic distance triathlons and Crossfit competitions, to not being able to exercise without getting sick.

And then by 2015, it wasn’t a day or two or three on the couch . . . it was WEEKS at a time that I couldn’t get and stay healthy.

And all of this time, I didn’t really understand or internalize what was happening. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t perform like I always had. Why couldn’t I just pull myself up by my bootstraps and keep going? What was wrong with me?!?!?

Many of my clients are having this same experience when they come to me. It shows up for them in different ways, but the theme is this . . . I have always been able to push myself THIS hard . . . what is wrong with me? Why am I broken? I feel like a failure. Will I ever feel better? Will I ever get my MOJO back? And when I say yes, I am absolutely certain that they are both elated and disappointed when I tell them it likely isn’t going to come back immediately. Because it will take TIME and HEALING and CONSISTENT, INTENTIONAL CHOICES to change the habits and behaviors that are feeding the beast.

Much of the research on toxic stress is focused on the impact that toxic stress has on the development of children--and the results show toxic stress in the life of a child impedes social, emotional and cognitive development, increases the risk of adoption of high risk and addictive behaviors, positions that child for a higher lifelong risk mental illness, chronic and terminal health conditions, and ultimately, early death.

And here is the good news, just like you can mitigate the impact of toxic stress for children and help them heal, you can also mitigate the impact of toxic stress for adults and help them heal too.

I am going to dig a little bit into the science, so hang with me. I am primarily using two resources for today. And article from Talentsmart on “How Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Toxic People”  and an article on toxic stress from heysigmund.com.

Studies have long shown that stress can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain. Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus—an important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory. Weeks of stress cause reversible damage to neuronal dendrites--[I probably did not say that correctly]--the small “arms” that brain cells use to communicate with each other, and months of stress can permanently destroy neurons. Stress is a formidable threat to your success—when stress gets out of control, your brain and your performance suffer.

[So while it is a normal part of life and our body is hardwired to respond to stress, it is not hardwired to stay in a state of chronic stress.] The physiological response to stress is wired into all of us and is evolution’s way of keeping us alive. In times of stress, our heart beats faster, our blood pressure increases, and adrenaline and cortisol (which is known as the stress hormone) surge through our system to make us stronger, faster, more alert and more powerful versions of ourselves. [It sounds great, doesn’t it?] In short, the physiological changes that come with stress are to give us the physical resources to deal with whatever might break our stride.

But – the stress response was only ever meant to happen for brief periods of time.  In the right doses, the cortisol (stress hormone) that surges through the body in times of stress will help us to perform at our peak. When the cortisol is turned on and off quickly, it energises, enhances certain types of memory, and sets the immune system to go.

[But] in a chronically stressful environment, the body’s stress response is always on [and] there is very little relief from the surge of chemicals and the increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

When this happens, the stress becomes toxic and can cause dramatic changes in the brain and body.

Toxic stress isn’t so much about the cause of the stress, but about the chronic and ongoing nature of the stress.

We all experience stress. It’s a very normal and healthy part of being human. Stress, followed by adequate recovery, helps us develop capacity and resilience.

But exposure to toxic stress during adulthood bears numerous harmful side effects just like it does in children.

  • When the brain is constantly exposed to a toxic environment, it will shut down to protect itself from that environment. The brain continues working, but it’s rate of growth slows down, creating a vulnerability to anxiety, depression and creates less resilience to stress.

  • Toxic stress intensifies the aging process and affects memory, cognition and emotion

  • Toxic stress creates vulnerability to physical illness. Chronic stress elevates the stress hormones [as I have discussed] and that increase and perpetual increase interferes with the functioning of the endocrine and immune systems. This has been associated with elevated inflammatory response that can lead to auto-immune illnesses such as arthritis, allergies and asthma. When stress is short-lived, even if it is intense, the immune system will not be affected. But, when the stress is more chronic and longer lasting, stress-related chemicals will keep surging through the body, and shut down the capacity of the immune cells to respond to foreign invaders. When the release of cortisol is persistent, the immune cells don’t get the chance to recover. Without anything to put up a fight, the body becomes an easy target for illness.

Many of the effects of toxic stress can be reversed. The earlier toxic stress can be caught and met with a healthy response, the more quickly and  effectively YOU can heal from its effects.

Relationships are key and healthy, supportive, stable ones have an extraordinary capacity to fortify people – children and adults – against the damaging effects of toxic stress. The power of human connection is profound.

There are a number of other antidotes to toxic stress that I am not going to cover today.

But I want you to know that if you feel perpetually exhausted and overwhelmed, like you cannot seem to get healthy or like you’ve lost your mojo and you don’t know why, I wanted to leave you today with these three things:

  1. Stress, by itself, is not inherently good or bad.

  2. Stress over prolonged periods of time without adequate recovery will actually break down your physiological, mental and emotional systems over time.

  3. The earlier you acknowledge toxic stress and begin to make adjustments to the way in which you care for yourself, the easier it will be to recover, heal and get your Mojo back.

It is very similar to a bone injury, and if you have listened or read any of my story, you might not be surprised to hear that I have had multiple stress fractures. If you stress a bone, and rest it before it breaks--and do the work to change or correct the patterns or weaknesses or imbalances that led to the stress--then you will recover in a shorter period of time. But if you stress the bone until it breaks, you still use the same approach to recover --rest and do the work to change or correct the patterns and imbalances that led to the break--but it will take longer, and you may be left with residual impact. For example, I had a stress fracture in my pelvis when I was fifteen. And when I was in college, I could still feel when it was about to rain. Over time, that pain has resolved, but I have taken a lot of time and care over the years to learn how to better protect the bones in my legs and hips.

This is just like the work that I do with my clients. The longer we wait to address the patterns and imbalances, the longer we wait to take proactive steps to mitigate and heal the stress in our lives, or the impact of the stress in our lives, the greater damage will be done and the longer it will take us to heal. That doesn’t mean we can’t heal. We can. WE CAN STILL HEAL.

But the sooner we face the potentially negative impact of stress in our lives and develop the appropriate recovery rituals and practices, the better, and more quickly, we will heal.

So I have one more story, because I think I try to communicate in this podcast that I am forever, and really all of my content, that I am forever a work in progress. So I went to the chiropractor yesterday to have them look at a puffy section right above my right knee that had been there for several months. And as I was describing to the chiropractor, I said “Yeah, I’ve had this swollen part above my knee, it’s been there for months, and it’s not getting any better.” And then I thought, and said out loud, “But I haven’t been doing anything for it either. I guess the good news is that it hasn’t gotten any worse.” So the diagnosis was that my meniscus was pinched between somewhere in my knee joint and that I was very lucky that I had not torn it. So, just yesterday, I was in a position, where my body had been giving me a signal by being swollen around my knee, that I had ignored for some period of time, and I was lucky that I had not caused more damage by ignoring that injury and tearing the meniscus which potentially could have required surgery.

I am still a work in progress and so are you. The good news is that you don’t have to do this work alone. Whether it’s with me or some other person in your life who can help you start to understand and take action to care for yourself, to notice the signals, and to actually mitigate the effects of the toxic stress in your life.

For more information about the work that I do with individuals, groups and organizations go to boothandrews.com. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @theboothandrews.

Thank you for listening. If you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts.

I look forward to being back with you next time!