Toxic Home Environment
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 2018 (edited October 17, 2021)
Our environment is instrumental to our mental health. When home environments are toxic, they constantly provoke stress, poisoning our souls and destroying well-being.
From gestation and embryo development, to childhood and throughout our primary relationships, we absorb nutrients and toxins from the environments. We need permeability to surroundings to master the give and take of living. Unfortunately, we are not blessed with an abundance of nurturing environments. Childhoods, work, and primary relationship are rift with complex mixtures of good bad, wealth and poverty, joys and sorrows. Our aliveness is vulnerable to the surrounding forces that collide with our existence and collaborate with our being to form the quality of our experience.
The Toxic Impact of Chronic Stress
Stressful environments elicit physical responses to protect against the toxicity. The body responds by releasing stress hormones into the blood stream, primarily cortisol, increasing adrenaline, blood pressure, heart rate, and glucose. This is a survival mechanism necessary for interaction with the occasional dangers of an unpredictable world.
But chronic stress, when our bodies consistently bathe in high levels of cortisol, is toxic. Science has shown that excessive stress during pregnancy impacts the brain development of the fetus. Consequently, these young children have trouble concentrating, managing emotions, controlling impulsive behaviors, and following directions.
Bruce S McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at the Rockefeller University, wrote, "chronic stress can produce changes in brain architecture, increase anxiety, alter mood, and decrease memory and cognitive flexibility" (2011, page 2).
Brain development continues long after the first precious years of existence. Even during our twilight years, we still draw support from environmental nutrients, or disease from the toxins.
Our daily diet of experience critically impacts physical and mental health. Chronic stress crushes aliveness, blunting joyful experience, and poisoning opportunities to flourish. Literally and figuratively ingesting toxins places the self under attack.
What is Stress?
Stress is a biological mechanism fashioned by millenniums of evolutions to effectively manage dangerous and threatening encounters—social acceptance included. Without a motivating affect, we would be an unwitting target to the nasty parasites of the world. So, we respond to protect, escape and prevail. We identify toxic elements and act to protect our survival and nurture continued growth.
Toxic stress disrupts this smooth flowing system, interfering with the survival and development benefits of healthy stress reaction to threats. When the world constantly overwhelms our ability to effectively respond, our bodies normal systems of defense collapse in confusion.
We are self-emergent and self-organizing beings (Siegel, 2012, location 3248). Our bodies magnificently respond to challenging environments, strengthening neural connections when reactions to stress create relief. Resilience is successful adaptation. We feel a growing sense of self-efficacy. Our self-determination expands because we perceive personal domination over life's obstacles.
However, when no matter how skilled, reasoned or organized the response, we still fail, our sense of efficacy is crushed against the frozen ground of experience.
Toxic Childhood Homes
Children raised in impoverished emotional worlds, victims of the chaos of caregivers (also struggling from their own chronic and toxic stress) quickly learn that liveliness is met with indifferent and angry responses. These children must forage through formidable piles of rotting psychological garbage to enjoy a few morsels of acceptance. Their toxic world is normalized. Their rudimentary concepts of relationships form around experiences of toxicity. In adulthood, they both seek and contribute to the toxicity of their homes.
Robyn Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley in their comprehensive and informative book on childhood development and violence wrote, "research...brings to light a range of more subtle toxins profoundly influencing our children’s earliest development: chronic stress or neglect, which affects the development of the fetal or early infant brain; early child abuse and neglect, which undermine focused learning; chronic parental depression; neglect or lack of the stimulation necessary for normal brain development; early loss of primary relationships or breaks in caregiving. These are the precursors of the growing epidemic of violence now coming to light in childhood and adolescence" (2014, location 569).
Childhoods profoundly impact children. Toxic home environments follow the child into adulthood, often poisoning the remainder of their lives.
We never completely escape toxicity. We are surrounded by competitive workplaces, attacking politics, and hateful, self-absorbed groups. Each encounter offers a mixture of good and evil. Even our healthy relationships occasionally face moments that disrupt rather than support liveliness.
Michael Eigen, an American psychoanalyst and writer warns "emotional nourishment and poisons can be so interwoven that it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between them" (1999, location 69). Our task is to grow within the givens of life, creating healthier environments, while also scavenging through the unpleasant moments to discover the tiny nuggets of wisdom buried in the toxic rubble.
"These children must forage in the formidable piles of rotting garbage to enjoy a few morsels of acceptance. Their toxic world is normalized."
Common Toxic Pollutants
Many toxic elements are obvious. These common toxins invade our homes, gnaw at our well-being, and destroy our lives.
-Threats to Physical Safety
Living in a home where physical safety is threatened, demanding constant is toxic. The constant presence of stress floods the biological systems, disrupting psychic growth, and preventing healthy interactions. Suspicions constantly haunt connection and suppress expressions of aliveness.
-Chemical and Behavioral Addictions
Addictive substances and behaviors interfere with lively interaction with surrounding environments, narrowing experience to the paucity of fulfillment achieved through satisfying an unrelenting desire. The addiction becomes the answer to any discomfort, slowly destroying the soul through an impoverished interaction with life.
Financial poverty gnaws at our well-being. Struggling to pay rent and provide food strikes at the heart of survival, igniting stress, and demanding all of our attention; unless, of course, we can escape the stress through blinding addictions.
Common but Less Obvious Toxins
Inner toxins are not so obvious.
We normalize the existence of defensive adaptations. We invite toxicity into our inner-most functions where they unconsciously operate, destroying our lives. We justify their existence and pretend they uplift. These toxins we not only accept but also promote. We find them in our work relationships, families and lovers. We embrace a life that feels wrong as the only life possible, stuffing our liveliness, to partake of a little warmth from acceptance.
We learn to extract what nourishment we can "from poisons at hand" (Eigen, location 71). Our acceptance of obvious toxins is in itself a destructive toxin. We adapted by acceptance, settling for abuse, poverty, and helplessness.
See Defense Mechanisms for more on this topic
Environments that erode our efficacy are loaded with toxins. Both toxic internal and external elements deter self-determined action to improve existence. These include protective adaptations typically presented as self-defense mechanisms, and manipulative interactions that destroy self-worth.
Narcissist exemplify the use of toxins, spewing out their poison in disregard to others. Their purpose is to achieve their aims with indifference to the painful impact their actions have on others. But regular people, such as ourselves, get pulled into these nightmares.
There is tremendous pressure to align with a narcissistic boss and become part of the inner-circle, rather than the brunt of their attacks. These work places often breed alliances, and back-stabbing. We adapt to the toxins by participating in the distribution of the virus. Our work day drains rather than inspires, creativity is lost for the sake of survival.
When Home Fails to Provide Relief from Toxic Work Environments
We can maintain sanity, even when engrossed with toxins from work, if we escape the burdens when we return to a supportive and rejuvenating home. But unfortunately for many, they leave the toxins of work for the equally potent toxins of home. Without the rush of free-flowing nutrients from some important area of our lives, we slowly whither from experience, suppress liveliness, and become a shell of the person we potentially could be.
We must remain vigilant to spot the vexing toxins, and work to purify our environments—sometimes this requires major changes.
"These work places often breed alliances, and back-stabbing. We adapt to the toxins by participating in the distribution of the virus."
Relationship Toxins Invading Our Homes
Chaos disrupts our lives, interfering with structured improvements. When chaos pervades, we have limited ability to prepare for unpredictable disasters. A home with constantly changing rules of interaction inhibits openness. We retreat within ourselves. No matter what we do in these environments to succeed, the response is chaotic and unpredictable. Consistent environmental feedback is necessary for healthy adaptations.
Healthy action may bring punitive retribution, not because we acted wrongly, but because the person choosing to punish doesn't follow normal criteria. Narcissists use a gaslighting technique. A chaotic, seemingly random response, leaving victims always uncertain. These environments constantly confuse, undermine, and destroy self-determined action for improvement.
See Gaslighting for more on this topic
Harsh Judgments are deformed and metastasized reactions to normal differences. Freedom to discuss differences is a hallmark of healthy relationship interaction. When partners respect and honor their partners autonomy, differences are non-threatening.
Harsh judgments identify difference but without honoring the partner. The identified difference is condemned, presented as a flaw and used to humiliate, through shameful attacks. The differences are viewed with disgust, and when exposed lead to a brutal turning away. Harsh judgements stigmatize imperfections and ridicules the 'diseased' carrier of the trait.
Harsh judgements are toxic and destructive. They are a manipulative technique to enhance the abusers sense of superiority.
Critical Labels often accompany harsh judgments. When labeled, we no longer receive the respect as a lively, dynamic person. Domineering partners replace respectful and endearing names with derogatory references. This toxic name-calling strikes deep, critically undermining self-worth.
Indifference while mild in display is a powerful toxin. Still face studies revealed the power of emotionless mother's faces had on their infants’ bids for attention. The small children’s moods quickly disintegrated from happy to alarmed to threatened. It is no wonder that indifference—or Stonewalling—is often used for control in emotionally abusive relationships.
Abusive parents and partners masterfully integrate the emotionally disconnected response to gain an upper hand. The momentary expression of “I don’t care about you,” leaves deep scars and threatens stability, igniting fears of abandonment. Indifference sends a message that we are unimportant.
See Relationship Drama for more on these topics
Protecting Against Toxic Environments
Learned Helplessness: Accepting the Toxins
In the early 1970’s Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments, leading to his theory of learned helplessness. Many animal studies conducted during earlier research provokes a little queasiness when seen against the backdrop of modern ethics. Seligman's study does just that; but provides interesting insights into behavioral responses to loss of efficacy.
In this study, Seligman placed dogs in a box, harnessed them so they could not escape, and gave them painful but non-lethal electrical shocks. The harness rendered them helpless to the shocks; they had no choice but to endure the momentary pains.
Later the same dogs, were placed in the same boxes, but harnesses removed. They were physically cable of jumping from the box and freeing themselves from the make-shift torture chamber. But when the shocks were administered, the poor animals remained still and endured the pain. A control group that was never subject to harnessing, however, responded to the shocks by leaping from the box to escape the pain.
Adults that had rotten childhoods where emotions and behaviors were discounted and berated learn helplessness. The harnessing to repeated humiliation established a conceptual perception of an unescapable cruel world. Instead of taking healthy action to escape once the child becomes an adult, their system depresses action, succumbing to outside forces—the shocks of life. Too many toxins (chaos, harsh judgments, derogatory labels, and indifference), depresses our souls.
See Learned Helplessness for more on this topic
Defensiveness to the Toxins
Another harmful protection against toxic environments is misdirected defensiveness. Instead of giving in to the pounding on our self-worth, we fight. This may be a healthy response to occasional poisoning, establishing a boundary but when a constant barrage of insults to our personhood continues, defensive reactions become part of a poisonous cycle.
If we remain in the toxic waste dump, relying on defensive retaliations to preserve self-image, soon the whole world appears threatening. Normal ruptures that ignite the flow of cortisol, and prepares the body for reaction to stress lose potency when constantly engaged in fight.
We procure our own toxins. Our toxic contributions to home environments are also noxious. We become the blamers, the labelers, and the still-faced emotionally disconnected partners and caregivers.
In Ryan Holiday’s wonderful book, Ego is the Enemy, he writes, “Sometimes because we can’t face what’s been said or what’s been done, we do the unthinkable: we escalate. This is ego in its purest and most toxic form” (2016). By escalating, we choose to spread the toxicity.
Healthy Responses to Home Toxins
-Remove the Toxin
The ideal response to toxins is removal. We find the toxin and remove it from our homes and lives. We discover internal processes poisoning experience and change them. We identify people and situations that contribute to the toxicity and avoid them. Simple, right?
It is overly simplistic and very antidotal to direct those suffering from toxic environments to simply leave. Sometimes this is possible; often it is not. However, we can’t be helpless, sitting in the corner, enduring painful shocks, and dreaming one day the world will change—most likely it won’t without our intervention.
-Rejuvenating Reprieves from Toxins
We must critically examine our workplaces, our homes, our friends and inner dialogues for toxins. We may not completely extinguish their presence on our lives. We can, however, manage our exposure, limiting discretionary time in places that destroy wellness.
We must build into our schedules refuges where we are nourished and restore our vitality. If they do not exist, we must create them, finding new friends, and new places to enlarge our souls, giving freedom for aliveness. Self-care and healing are necessary to strengthen resolve in places laced with toxins.
-Improving Toxic Environments
1. Inner Toxic Environments
A more involved, but necessary step, for healing from toxic exposure is improving existing environments. This includes addressing inner toxins that poison our thoughts. A mindful approach, and possibly professional guidance can guide us through an improved relationship with ourselves, exorcising the demons and nurturing the better angels of self-kindness.
2. External Toxic Environments
Outside relationships will always bump and bruise as we navigate the intricacies of communication. This is normal in all relationships. Our response, on the other hand can escalate differences, contaminating the environment.
A better response to relationship toxins is available—resolving communication ruptures. A mindful examination of interaction can identify ruptures. Once identified, we have the option to halt the toxic decent into hurtful arguments. connection.
We seek repair of communication ruptures by reestablishing connection, reaffirming to our partner our child that disagreement isn’t reflective on the personal importance of the relationship. Through repair we open pathways for correction. Repair deviates from normal patterns of toxic blame, shame, labeling and disconnection. Over time repair filters much of the toxins that previously poisoned our lives.
Not Every Toxic Environment is Amendable to Change
People do not always respond well to repair efforts. Some environments will remain toxic and will banefully erode precious wellness as long as we submit to the poison. We may need to find a new job, separate from an abusive partner, or distance ourselves from hurtful parents. These decisions are not easy; and sometimes dangerous. Gather resources, discover supportive agencies, and courageously move forward with life.
Life is difficult enough without suffering from the toxins that we can avoid. We can jump from life's painful shocks that damage our souls. We can escape the unneeded and unwelcome toxins that slowly erode our aliveness. We must strive to make our homes toxin free havens for our wellness, for our child's development, and a delightful rejuvenating escape from work.
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Eigen, M. (1999). Toxic Nourishment. Routledge; 1st edition.
Holiday, R. (2016). Ego is the Enemy. Portfolio; 1st edition
Karr-Morse, R., Wiley, M. S. (2014). Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition.
McEwen, B. (2011). Effects of Stress on the Developing Brain. Cerebrum: the Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2011
Siegel, D. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; Third Printing Used edition