The Science Behind How Toxic Relationships Affect Mental Health


Supportive relationships are a huge boon to health. They modify stress and help people feel like they have a place and a purpose in the world. However, not all relationships are supportive, and relationships that cause more stress than support are proven to be detrimental to health.

Can a bad relationship cause mental illness? Many studies have shown that our stress levels negatively impact our overall health. Stress can increase just about every health issue such as brain, thyroid, immune, and weight problems. But even more specifically, the Whitehall II study, (1) a landmark body of research that followed more than 10,000 people for over 12 years, confirmed that the link between toxic relationships, stress, and health is real.

According to this study, those who were in toxic 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 (2) something called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), and a type of gene expression that’s associated with inflammation and low immunity. If you were being chased by a predator, CTRA allows for some helpful short-term benefits, such as increased healing, physical recovery, and the increased likelihood of survival.

Chronic stress from toxic relationships can cause a long-term activation (3) of the brain’s CTRA, contributing to chronic inflammation and increasing the risk of health problems like adrenal fatigue.

What are the signs of a toxic relationship?

So what are toxic relationships? Most people know when their relationship with someone is not positive, but for some, the toxicity can be so pervasive that it begins to feel normal. Everyone has good days and bad days and all relationships go through hard times, but this quiz can help you figure out whether your relationship is truly toxic.

Toxic Relationships Quiz

When you are with the person, or after you are with the person, do you feel any of the following most of the time (or more than half of the time?:

  • Physically or emotionally drained of energy.
  • Bad about yourself.
  • Like you are always giving without getting anything back, or the other person is always taking without giving back to you.
  • Shunned, an outsider, or otherwise not accepted for who you are.
  • Isolated from friends, family, or others who are supportive of you, because the person doesn’t want you to be around those people.
  • Emotionally or physically unsafe or injured.
  • Fear.

Do you need a relationship detox?

I am a big advocate of integrating “detox” practices to all aspects of life because clearing out the refuse and stepping back from what is not serving your mental, physical, and spiritual well-being will help you find better balance so you can thrive and stay healthy.

In the past I have written about smartphone and digital detoxes to simplify your life, as well as food detoxes to heal your body, but you can do a relationship detox, too. Here are my six tips for giving yourself a relationship detox and setting healthy boundaries.

What to do in a toxic relationship

     1. Ponder these four choices of how to deal with negative or toxic relationships:

  • Accept the relationship as it is, and be at peace with it as it is. This can actually reduce a lot of stress based in trying to change someone else.
  • Change the relationship by creating boundaries for yourself. Remember that you can’t change other people, but you can change how you react and what you will allow into your own life.
  • Leave the relationship. Sometimes, sadly, this is the best course, if the other person’s behavior is intolerable to you.
  • Feel miserable. This is the choice that will continue the stress cycle.

Since every relationship is different, these options will mean different things to each person, but I encourage you not to choose “feel miserable” anymore. You are hurting your health and everyone around you by harboring that negative energy.

     2. Foster your own mindfulness

You may not be ready to make a decision right away. 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. There are great apps that will help guide you to grow your mindfulness muscle.

     3. Cultivate your inner strength with yoga

In addition to mindfulness, I find that 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.

     4. Talk about it

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 can remain neutral will give you the space to share your perspective and get more clarity as well as practical tools to apply to your unique situation. If your toxic relationship is personal (family member, friend, or spouse), consider asking them to go to counseling with you, if they are willing. They might be feeling the need for guidance, too.

     5. Set appropriate boundaries

Whether you are going to accept, change, or leave a negative relationship, setting boundaries can help you clarify your path and re-establish your autonomy. Consider these three levels of boundaries:

  • For optimal health, cultivate an inner circle of people who love you and are good at building you up and filling you with positive energy.
  • Be mindful of those people who need you as a positive influence, but who also need to be kept at a certain distance so their negativity or dysfunction does not creep into your life. These relationships can be valuable, as long as you are able to maintain this boundary.
  • Finally, there are 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 the tough calls about who you spend your time with and how much you let them influence your mental, physical, and spiritual health, for better or worse.

     6. Create the tribe you need

Just as negative people are linked to hurting your health, conversely, recent research (4) shows that people with good friends have lower inflammation levels and blood pressure compared with those with poor relationship ties. Surround yourself with people who edify you and challenge you to be the best version of yourself. If you don’t have those people, go out and seek them in your community, or even in online groups of like-minded people. Your health depends on it!

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.

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  1. De Vogli R, Chandola T, Marmot MG. Negative Aspects of Close Relationships and Heart Disease. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(18):1951–1957. doi:10.1001/archinte.167.18.1951
  2. Powell ND, Sloan EK, Bailey MT, et al. Social stress up-regulates inflammatory gene expression in the leukocyte transcriptome via β-adrenergic induction of myelopoiesis. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110(41):16574-16579. doi:10.1073/pnas.1310655110
  3. Slavich GM, Irwin MR. From stress to inflammation and major depressive disorder: a social signal transduction theory of depression. Psychol Bull. 2014;140(3):774-815. doi:10.1037/a0035302
  4. Social relationships and physiological functioning
    Yang Claire Yang, Courtney Boen, Karen Gerken, Ting Li, Kristen Schorpp, Kathleen Mullan Harris Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2016, 113 (3) 578-583; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1511085112

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Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, Gut Feelings, and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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