What is Toxic Stress?

What is Toxic Stress? June 11, 2019Leave a comment

When was the last time you said, “I just can’t take one more thing?” Or thought, “I’m at the end of my rope.”

For over 70% of women, this degree of high stress is a daily experience.


In fact, a recent survey that we did amongst our 23,000 Facebook followers not only showed that well over 70% of women respondents felt high stress and overwhelm most days, but also that this was the experience of women in all ages and stages, and from all walks of life, including:

  • pregnant women and new mothers
  • women with children 2 to 12 years of age
  • women with adolescent and young
  • with young adult children
  • stay-at-home moms
  • professional women (lawyers, nurses, managers, executives, entrepreneurs)
  • women from early 20’s to late 60’s


Stress Has Its Good Sides….and Down Sides

Stress can be good. You’ve experienced the mild tension that comes before an exam or a work presentation or interview. It’s low-level and manageable. And, it’s just enough to heighten your thinking powers, making you more alert and more “on top of your game.”

Take it one step further. Envision how you felt the last time you had a fairly stressful, but short-lived, situation in your life. It might have been a conflict with a friend or family member. It might have been a tight project timeline at work. Although you felt quite a bit of stress, you felt that you were still in control and managing it well. This kind of stress is normal and happens to every one of us.


Take it one step further again. Think about the last time you felt VERY stressed. You felt like you had no control in the situation. The situation may have gone on for a prolonged period of time, and you felt drained, exhausted and depleted. You might have:

  • had trouble sleeping
  • gone into stress-eating mode (eating every sweet and salty thing you could get your hands on)
  • been quite short and irritable with those you love

What makes this last kind of stress dangerous? It’s toxicstress. Your stress has reached a point where you can no longer manage it. Its effects start to spill over to your home and work life. Emotional and physical health are both affected. And, you feel like you don’t have resources that you  need to deal with it.

How Do I Know I’m Experiencing Toxic Stress?

Here is a 5-point checklist that you can use to determine if you are experiencing toxic stress.

In the past month, check-off how often you had these 5 experiences: 

  Most days Some days A few days
I felt physical tension (such as jaw clenched, brow tensed, shoulders tensed, tummy butterflies or upset).
I thought, “I can’t handle one more thing” or had a similar thought.
I was irritable with my partner, children, family, friends, or co-workers, etc.
I felt worried.
I felt out-of-control and/or stuck (e.g., I felt like I had no options).

 If you had these experiences on some or most days, you are likely in toxic stress. What does that mean for you? Read on….

What Can I Do to Lower My Stress?

The key to lowering stress is to make it more manageable.

Click here to find 7 Hacks for Your Emotional Well-Being While Pregnant

One of the most prominent stress experts, Dr. Bruce McEwen, says that stress is all in the mind. I know – you’re probably wondering what he meant by that when your stress clearly  comes from your partner, boss, or mother-in-law.

Here is the key point: Everyday, we face situations that are potentially stressful. Whether we allow ourselves (actually, our brains) to see these situations as stressful and threatening or as opportunities and possibility is a decision that takes place in our brain.

Our brains are constantly scanning our environment for threats – of both physical AND social danger. In  fact, our brains can’t  actually tell the difference between danger that will make me die, and social danger that will make me feel embarrassed, guilty, isolated or not included, not liked, etc.

Most of us experience social danger – not physical danger.

In that moment when we face a difficult social experience, we have a mindful choice to make:

  • Do I instinctively react (without thought) to my brain’s “threat detection system” and gear up for social combat by fighting (becoming defensive, angry, irritable, speaking hurtful words) or fleeing (withdrawing, ignoring, passively slamming doors instead of talking); or
  • Do I thoughtfully respond, by choosing to see this difficult situation as an opportunity for growth, asking myself the question, “What is the possibility that exists in this situation.”

The more difficult the situation, the harder it is to thoughtfully respond versus instinctively react.

But – the healthy emotional response is the mindful, thoughtful response. It’s the one that keeps stress manageable. It’s the one that helps you to see the situation as growth-producing, rather than as out-of-control.

High stress is THE most common complication in pregnancy….and beyond.


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