It’s no secret that today’s society has grown increasingly more health conscious than ever before. Healthier alternatives are springing up in the most unexpected places –like fast food restaurants– of all things. And caloric counts displayed next to menu items has almost become the rule instead of the exception. Health conscious people are opting for organic, over processed foods, gluten-free substitutes, wraps in place of bread, alkaline water instead of tap water, packing lunches for work in lieu of eating out, and yet the vast majority of health conscious people fail to consider that the stress caused by toxic relationships, whether with spouses, partners, family, friends, and even co-workers, can be just as damaging to their health, and well-being, as the foods they’ve so resolutely eliminated from their daily diets.
Even healthy relationships can go through trying times and cause brief periods of stress. All relationships take work and effort. And let’s face it, no one is perfect. But toxic relationships are a whole other animal. And, if your goal is to stay healthy, you’ll be sure to avoid toxic relationships like the controversial GMO foods (Genetically Modified Organisms) the food industry is pushing.
Toxic relationships don’t have the normal ups and downs that typify healthy relationships. These relationships are parasitic and imbalanced, to the point where the toxic partner’s behaviors are unhealthy and psychologically damaging to the other partner. They can involve patterns of dominance, manipulation, intimidation, emotional coercion, withholding, dishonesty, extreme selfishness, guilt-mongering, rejection, mind-freakery, chaos, financial abuse, jealousy, and possessiveness.
The chronic stress of a toxic relationship is often invisible to the eye, and difficult to quantify, but gradually wears our bodies down over time. The prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems can take its toll, and wreak havoc on our physiology, and overall well-being.
An unsettling example of this is the photo spread on Upworthy.com that shows the emotional repercussions on soldier’s faces before, during, and after they experienced combat. It’s a pretty disturbing, but telling pictorial, of the effects of chronic stress.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that chronic psychological, and emotional stress, is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. Published in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, the research indicates that this inability not only promotes the development of disease but accelerates its progression. Additionally, the chronic stress and conflict of a toxic relationship raises our blood pressure, and constricts our arteries, and also triggers the body to produce the hormone cortisol in excessive quantities.
Cortisol regulates the body’s inflammatory response and helps us meet life’s challenges. It is essential to our survival, but too much of a good thing is, well, not good. Sustained high cortisol levels cause immune cells to become less sensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect, resulting in increased risk of disease, including the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States —heart attacks.
And, compared to survival statistics compiled in an article titled 11 Things We Think Are Fatal That Actually Have Great Survival Rates written by Sam Greenspan, you’re more likely to survive a plane crash, gunshot to the head or heart, train crash, and a venomous spider bite, than your chances of surviving a heart attack.
Being on edge, and in a constant state of high alert for prolonged periods of time also decreases our immune system’s ability to fight off illness, again cortisol related, and renders us more vulnerable to infection and disease. An atmosphere filled with constant hostility, criticisms, and emotional turmoil wears on our emotional and mental state, and affects our sleep and appetite, adding to the deterioration of our physical and mental health.
Numerous studies caution us of the correlation between psychological and emotional stress, and its relationship to increased risk of illness and disease. Common sense tells us that chronic and prolonged stress makes us even more prone to common conditions, experienced by people on the receiving end, of the toxic relationship stick. These include but are not limited to: heart attack, adrenal fatigue, weight gain or loss, hair loss, insomnia, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) autoimmune disorders, digestive problems, asthma, migraines, epilepsy, cancer, arthritis, slower wound healing, Type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and increased dependency on alcohol, or other substances.
But, I don’t need a scientific research study to convince me psychological and emotional stress brings on illness. During the last part of a two year long toxic relationship, with a toxic person, my left eye became inexplicably inflamed. I went to several specialists, none of which could find the cause of the problem. I was prescribed antibiotics for an infection I didn’t have and sent home with a heavy duty strength cortisone cream to reduce the inflammation. Guess what? It didn’t work. Not even a little bit. The next month my toxic relationship ended, and within in a few weeks, the mysterious inflammation beneath my eye was gone, along with the stress of a toxic relationship. I later learned that one of the reasons fluid accumulates to form puffy eyes is –you guessed it– stress.
So, I must pose this question to you, is your relationship worth dying for? Think about it this way. You’re paying for that gym membership. You’re coughing up the extra cash to eat organically. You’ve given up wheat in favor of gluten-free options. You’ve eliminated preservatives, and processed foods from your diet. But, all your worthwhile efforts are in vain, if your relationship is causing you more stress than joy.
There is wisdom in the saying “relationships dictate the quality of our lives.” Studies have proven that healthy relationships, and good marriages can positively impact our mental health, and prolong the longevity of our lives. Toxic relationships, on the other hand, not only drain us of our happiness, and slowly and insidiously murder our spirits, but they quite literally can make us sick, and potentially even kill us.
So, next time you’re doing your grocery shopping, and filling your shopping cart with low calorie, and healthy, organic foods, don’t forget that an important ingredient of the recipe for a health conscious lifestyle is a healthy relationship.
Bree Bonchay, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with over 18 years of experience working in the field of mental health and trauma recovery. She specializes in helping people recover from toxic relationships and shares her insights about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and psychopathy in her blog FreeFromToxic. Her articles have been featured in major online magazines and she has appeared on radio as a guest expert. She is also a dedicated advocate, educator, and facilitates survivor support groups and workshops.
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Copyright © 2015 Bree Bonchay. All Rights Reserved.