Social support can have a major impact on our overall health. According to the American Psychological Association, people with emotional support have, on average, a lower stress rate. That can help both our physical and mental well-being.
On the other hand, a negative environment can cause harm. It can lead to greater levels of stress, anxiety, or depression, and cause negative physical effects like heart problems.
There are a number of toxic influences out there. Eliminating or managing them is an important step for your health.
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What Is a Toxic Influence?
Toxic influences are environmental factors that can have a negative effect on our mental and physical well-being.
“There are so many toxic behaviors or situations that people can get into or involved with,” says Jennifer Beckjord, PsyD, senior director of clinical services at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. “Certain things we do may feel like adaptive coping initially and can become harmful habits or behaviors.”
Some examples of toxic influences include:
- Media/social media
But people in our lives also can be toxic influences. Research shows negative interactions— whether it’s with a family member, significant other, friend, co-worker, boss, or someone else — also can cause problems. And if it’s a constantly negative relationship, it can have long-lasting, long-reaching effects. For example, the World Health Organization says a bad work environment can affect your home and social life as well.
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How to Spot a Toxic Influence
The first step to ridding yourself of a toxic influence is recognizing it exists.
That may sound easier than it actually is — sometimes we get so used to our relationships that we don’t recognize their negative effect.
Mental Health America outlines several “traits of toxic people.” If anyone in your life exhibits these qualities, that person may be a negative influence on your mental health:
- Behaviors that affect your self-esteem (insults, downplaying your achievements, etc.)
- Controlling behavior
Non-human factors can cause mental impacts, too. The American Psychological Association’s 2019 “Stress in America” report found that news coverage can cause stress and anxiety.
Coping mechanisms like alcohol, tobacco, and drugs can alter brain chemicals and cause psychological symptoms. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people with a drug addiction are twice as likely to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders.
“Turning to alcohol as a way to cope can quickly downward spiral into a toxic behavior,” Dr. Beckjord says. “Even becoming obsessive with news coverage — if you don’t take a break and create some definitive boundaries around your exposure to news, it can be very toxic as well.”
How to Eliminate Toxic Influences
It can be difficult to eliminate toxic influences altogether — especially if it’s a close relative, a boss, or co-worker. If you have a negative work environment, finding another job is an option. If it’s a friend or family member, you can focus instead on talking to people who have a more positive influence on your mood.
Another option is to limit your exposure, Dr. Beckjord says. If news coverage or social media are causing you stress, anxiety, or some other kind of emotional impact, you can try not to view as much of it. If a friend, relative, or someone at work is causing a mental burden, try to spend less time around those people.
“Focus on what we can control,” Dr. Beckjord says. “We can’t control others’ behaviors or actions, so what we need to focus on is how we respond to those individuals and the amount of exposure we have to them.”
Mediation also can have a positive impact. Whether you approach a toxic influence directly or through a third party, talking about the problems a person is causing you may help.
You also can consider seeking professional help if a toxic influence is causing a heavy mental burden. Try talking to a therapist if someone is negatively affecting your everyday life. If you think you’re becoming overly reliant on drugs or alcohol to cope, you can seek a professional or a treatment program.
“You have to assess your options,” Dr. Beckjord says. “And ask yourself, which ones are realistic to address the issue?”
American Psychological Association, Manage Stress: Strengthen Your Support Network. https://www.apa.org/topics/manage-stress-social-support
American Psychological Association, Stress in America 2019. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2019/stress-america-2019.pdf
Mental Health America, Tools 2 Thrive, Eliminating Toxic Influences. https://mhanational.org/eliminating-toxic-influences#3
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Health Consequences of Drug Misuse, Mental Health Effects. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/health-consequences-drug-misuse/mental-health-effects
Patricia A Thomas, PhD, Hui Liu, PhD, and Debra Umberson, PhD, Family Relationships and Well-Being. Innovation in Aging. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954612/
World Health Organization, Mental Health in the Workplace. https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/#:~:text=Work%20is%20good%20for%20mental,per%20year%20in%20lost%20productivity.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.