Your health and well-being are holistic and intertwined. Your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health are all part of the same system, and if one goes haywire, the others will feel the effects. Toxic relationships, whether romantic or not, can do a real number on your health—particularly your mental health. However, you might notice residual effects impacting your physical health. For example, a child who has a toxic relationship with someone at school might often complain of stomach aches.
Toxic relationships should be stopped and avoided whenever possible, but that’s not always plausible. Sometimes these relationships can’t be avoided, such as if you’re in a toxic relationship with your boss and haven’t been able to secure a new job yet. In these cases, it’s important to set boundaries for yourself and the other person. Establishing and sticking to boundaries can help safeguard your mental health and provide you with a reference point if you sense yourself slipping into old habits.
In cases where the relationship can be ended, it’s often trickier to do so than it seems. Just like with drugs and alcohol, you can be addicted to a toxic relationship and many addicts are in denial. Sometimes the toxic relationship might stem from one person being addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. In these instances, part of your boundary setting might be encouraging them to get professional help and holding them to commitments they make to address their addiction.
Toxic relationships come in all shapes and sizes. They might become toxic after several years of an otherwise healthy relationship, perhaps from an addiction, or they might have been toxic from the start, and you took awhile to recognize the patterns. Regardless, know that toxic relationships can seriously damage your mental health. Here’s how, and what you can do about it.
1. It destroys your self-esteem
If a toxic relationship has you questioning your self-worth, it can take years to repair. Perhaps the toxic relationship includes mental, verbal, or emotional abuse. If you're regularly told that you're worthless, or if the person blames you for their own poor decisions or actions, you’ll eventually start to believe them. Poor self-worth can have a snowball effect and require mental health therapy to repair. However, the first step is removing yourself from the relationship.
2. You can start to doubt your own reality
Toxic relationships can sometimes step from one person having a mental health disorder such as borderline personality disorder. In these cases, you might repeatedly be told that a certain event didn't happen as you remembered. Constant exposure might have you doubting yourself and can eat away at your mental health.
3. Excessive stress
We live in a culture that highly values “stress reduction” and stress management. Stress can present itself in very physical forms such as high blood pressure, weight gain to obesity, and other dangerous symptoms. The best way to reduce stress is to avoid it when possible. This might mean ending a toxic relationship.
4. Choosing unhealthy means of coping
If you can't end a toxic relationship, you'll have to find ways to manage it. Healthy ways can include setting boundaries with the guidance of a mental health professional, compartmentalizing to keep your "safe places" secure, or practicing yoga, meditation, forest bathing and other good habits. However, some people choose unhealthy ways of coping such as excessive shopping, alcohol, and drugs, or unhealthy food binges (binge eating disorder is an eating disorder).
5. You’re suddenly responsible for someone who should care for themselves.
Does your toxic relationship have you foregoing self-care to take care of an adult who should be independent? This can happen slowly or suddenly and is another case of setting boundaries. Many times only a mental health professional can help you gauge what levels of responsibility you should adopt and how to manage them. There are some relationships, such as caring for an aging parent, that has a lot of gray areas which can be overwhelming to dismantle on your own.
Toxic relationships aren’t always easy to define, and they can grow and manifest over time. Every relationship in your life takes time and resources from you, and there will be times you give more than you get. However, overall there should be a balance. Assessing the relationships in your life on a regular basis can help you identify which relationships are healthy, which need work, and which are best left behind.
In some cases, the other person might be amenable to seeking joint therapy. This can be a fantastic way to save a relationship and perhaps make it healthier than ever. Joint therapy isn’t just for couples. It can be for anyone in a relationship, platonic or not.