“I’m not okay.” A look at toxic stress.

Ugh. 2020. I think it’s fair to say that most of us are feeling a little NOT OKAY. In fact, it has become perfectly normal to respond with a shrug when someone casually asks, “How are you?”

The truth is, we are not just in a COVID-19 pandemic. We are also in the middle of a mental health pandemic. We are experiencing various levels of stress right now–some good, some bad. So, let’s take a look at stress and how to manage the effects of it in your own life.


Positive stress is all about motivation. It’s a mild, and needed, push in a certain direction so that you can get things done. An example might be a deadline at work or your alarm clock ringing in the morning. It typically gives you a little electric start but sends you moving in the right direction.


Tolerable stress may not feel tolerable at the time but it is short-lived. The effects of this stress are more intense and you can feel it more intensely in your body. An example might be a car accident, a fight with your partner, losing your job. The experience is difficult and you may lose sleep, have trouble concentrating, become mildly depressed, etc. However, the effects of tolerable stress are reduced when the experience is finally resolved.


Before talking about toxic stress, let’s discuss the body’s stress response. The brain responds to threat in the environment by activating the “fight, flight, freeze” response in the body. This means that the brain says, “Uh-oh, something is dangerous,” and floods the body with chemicals that ensure our survival. If you are a fighter, you will probably feel anxious and irritable. If you are a flight-er, you will most likely become withdrawn and depressed. If you are a freez-er, you most likely feel “stuck” and numb.

Any or all of those stress responses are perfectly normal and good when experienced for a short period of time. But toxic stress is when the fight, flight, freeze response in the brain and body is activated for a long period of time. With positive and tolerable stress, the brain returns to a state of calm rather quickly. Even if it lasts a few days or a few weeks, there are periods of calm within this time frame so that the toxic stress response is not activated.

Toxic stress is when the body stays flooded with chemicals day after day after day. Abuse, neglect, work or food insecurity, chronic loneliness, domestic violence, chronic work/life stress, etc. The type of stress is not as relevant as the response that the stress has on your mind and body. Which leads me to the most important part:


Stress is in the eye of the beholder. That means, you get to determine what is stressful for YOU. No one else can tell you that some event or experience in your life is not relevant or stressful. Your brain and your body determine what is threatening and difficult to deal with. So, a friend of yours may lose a job and roll with it without a hitch. The same experience might send you into a tailspin. That’s okay. You’re allowed to experience your own experiences.

What often makes the difference in how people respond, however, is what I call buffer. Good self-care and a healthy support system are critical for managing stress. In fact, most people with a good self-care routine and a healthy support system to help manage and process life experiences often experience stress as positive and healthy. The buffer helps you “bounce back” much more rapidly.

So, consider. What are 1-2 self-care activities that you might be able to implement into your life this week? Walking around the block? Turning off social media? Sit in your car and practice mindful breathing for 60 seconds?

What are 1-2 ways that you could connect with others for support? FaceTime with relatives? Find an online event to connect with like-minded people?

Let me know how I can help! If you have suggestions for an online group or training, please reach out to me via my contact page. I am also available for teletherapy and would love to know how I can help you during this time!

All the best,


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