What Toxic Relationships Really Are & How They Affect Us

Functional Medicine Practitioner By William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional medicine expert who specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Cole is also the bestselling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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The term "toxic relationship" gets tossed around a lot, but the truth is, toxic relationships can have a seriously negative impact on our lives and even our health. Here's the true definition of a toxic relationship, how toxic relationships can affect our mental health, and what we can do about it.

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is a relationship that consistently leaves you feeling drained, bad about yourself, or emotionally or physically unsafe. Consistent means this is how you feel more often than not after hanging out with this person. This is key. Marriages, family members, friendships, co-workers, and bosses can all be toxic relationships that are bad for your well-being.

Usually toxic relationships involve an unequal amount of give and take, where one person must give a lot and receives very little in return. Toxic relationships are also relationships where you don't feel accepted for who you are; you may feel like an outsider, shunned, or judged constantly. And importantly, toxic relationships aren't just bad relationships or unhappy ones. A toxic relationship is one that has real consequences for your physical, emotional, and mental health.

Here are some signs of a toxic relationship to help you recognize whether you're in one.

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How toxic relationships affect your health.

Many of my patients over the years could pinpoint their health declining when they were in a toxic, stressful relationship or environment. That's because, in a toxic relationship, the emotional becomes the biological.

As a functional medicine practitioner, my job is to get to the root cause of why people are experiencing health problems. So much can be gained from finding out which foods your body loves and which ones it loathes. But a piece we often overlook that is just as important as the foods we eat? Stress. You can eat healthy all day long, but our body consumes and digests stress, too: If you're feeding your body a big slice of stress, it could be the missing link in your holistic health puzzle. Many studies have shown that our stress levels will hurt our health. Stress can increase just about every health issue such as brain, thyroid, immune, and weight problems.

We don't always acknowledge it, but relationships cause some of the highest stress levels in our lives. The Whitehall II study, a landmark body of research, followed more than 10,000 people for over 12 years and confirmed that the link between toxic relationships, stress, and your health is real. Those who were in negative relationships were at greater risk of developing heart problems, including dying from heart attacks and strokes, than those whose close relationships were not negative.

Humans have adapted something called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), a type of gene expression that's associated with inflammation and low immunity. So if you were being chased by a predator, CTRA allowed for some helpful short-term benefits, such as increased healing, physical recovery, and the increased likelihood of survival. The chronic stress of an unhealthy relationship can cause a long-term activation of our brain's CTRA, contributing to chronic inflammation and increasing the risk of health problems like adrenal fatigue.

What to do about toxic relationships:

1. Realize you have four choices for that negative relationship:

  • Accept the relationship as it is, and be at peace with it as it is.
  • Change the relationship by creating boundaries. You can't change people.
  • Leave the relationship.
  • Feel miserable.

Since every relationship is different, these options will mean different things to everyone. But I encourage you not to choose "feel miserable" anymore. You are hurting your health and everyone around you by harboring that negative energy. Deal with your toxic relationship directly.

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2. Grow in mindfulness to make the right choice for you.

To determine the best course of action for your toxic relationship, you first need to deal with yourself. Start consistent mindfulness meditation to bring peace into your life and grow in presence. By becoming more present and less worried about perceived future events or the mental replaying of past events with this person, you will anchor yourself in the only place of effective change, which is right here, right now.

3. Find your inner strength.

In addition to mindfulness, other practices of calm strength can be a catalyst for positive change. My friend, yoga superstar Liz Arch found her strength and clarity in the midst of a very toxic relationship through yoga. The movement, mindfulness, and breathing of yoga can be healing in that it helps release negative energy, clarifying the body and mind from the inside. (Here are some other ways to radiate positive energy.)

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4. Talk with someone.

Consider going to a qualified mindfulness-based counselor. While there are many beneficial schools of therapy and counseling, I like this one the most. Talking to a qualified therapist who has an objective view and remains neutral through big life changes will provide space for you to share your perspective and arm you with practical tools for your unique situation.

If your toxic relationship is personal (such as a toxic family member, toxic friend, or unhealthy relationship), consider asking them to go to counseling with you if they are willing.

5. Set appropriate boundaries.

Whether you are going to accept, change, or end the relationship will help you sculpt the new healthy boundaries you need to set. For optimal health, I suggest having three tiers of relationships to keep toxic ones from heavily affecting you:

  • Level 1: Your inner circle of people filled with loved ones who build you up and bring positive energy to your life.
  • Level 2: Those whom you can be a positive influence on but benefit greatly by having healthy boundaries.
  • Level 3: The outermost circle, those who will negatively affect your life if you get too close. Be kind but from a distance.

Trust your intuition: It has the wisdom to make tough calls for who you spend your time with, for they will influence your mental, physical, and spiritual health for better or worse.

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6. Create the tribe you want.

Just as negative people are linked to hurting your health, conversely, research tells us that people with good friends had lower inflammation levels and blood pressure compared to those with poor relationship ties. Surround yourself with people who edify you and challenge you to be the best version of yourself. Your health depends on it!

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William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional-medicine expert and a Doctor of Chiropractic. He...
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William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional-medicine expert and a...
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