toxic people and stressRespond, not react.

I think we all know how it feels to deal with toxic people. If you are inclined to self-reflect, you might even ask yourself, “Am I a toxic person?”

When pushed beyond their coping abilities, people tend to engage in knee-jerk reaction behaviors. It’s like the dark shadow inside takes control. For them, there’s no thinking about boundaries, considering feelings, or weighing what’s best, what’s possible or what’s reasonable for the people in their damage path.

For the person in the wrong place at the wrong time, ways to change the situation might seem limited, sometimes hopeless, or it’s hard to think of what to do and how to do it because of all the drama and conflict that keeps happening. The threats either are or they seem to be quite real.

Toxic people interactions are most unsettling. Your stomach may flinch. You might feel your chest tighten. Your heart might beat faster. Sleep, peace and relaxation begin to suffer. Your stomach might give you trouble too. Call it a sudden stress strike at your core.

Toxic people interactions vary widely from the coworker who openly sneers at you when you walk by to the girl who both openly and behind-your-back is a total bitch sabotager. Then there are the friends, family members, neighbors and associates who just don’t know how to act; they are self-serving or totally self-centered; or they walk around insensitive, intolerant, irritable and insulting, not really giving a damn about the people around them. No doubt about it, this stuff hurts.

What a lot of people don’t realize, however, is that how you think and what you think about a situation help determine the level of stress you feel. David Burns, a noted psychiatrist, found that when people interpreted events in certain ways, they tended to get more upset. Burns called these cognitive distortions, but I like to think of them as twisted thinking patterns.

Twisted thinking patterns fall into categories like jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing and obsessing over the what-ifs. Twisted thinking patterns make dealing with toxic people harder than they already are. If you think in these ways, they might make you seem toxic too, or at least very unpleasant to be around.

Fortunately, twisted thinking patterns can be straightened out.

Still, damaging actions from others can be emotionally traumatizing when they happen. The drama trauma becomes worse over time. Though it’s no excuse, everyone has a bad day sometimes.

When it comes to stress, we so often hear that we instinctively choose fight or flight. How come no one mentions “sucking it up” and what happens with that? When we suck it up, are we effectively internalizing and collecting all of the wounds inside ourselves?

Have you known a woman who has had a breakdown during an extremely stressful time or a period of stress, like the persistent chaos and hurt that’s created by toxic people, environments and relationships, or persistent challenges in meeting basic and other human needs. What was going on?

You or someone you know — it may be that toxic person making your life hell — might be faced with chronic stress and ongoing unmet needs. They may be stretched beyond their coping ability.

Back to Dr. Burns. If how you interpret the stressful event can make a big difference, then how can you interpret stressful situations into something less hurtful, how can you find more peace in the chaos?

If you feel like a victim, start with empathy and deeper connectedness. Try walking in the other person’s shoes, to understand what could be going on. Maybe you can help. That toxic person in your life could be dealing with terrible depression or anxiety, or be addicted to alcohol or drugs. Detachment is a useful too tool.

If you are dealing with significant challenges in your life, and you’re often bothered by worries and what-ifs, remember that most of what we imagine could happen doesn’t happen. You might also find support you didn’t know you had when you ask for help in specific ways. I’ve found that a lot of times people think they’re asking for support, but they don’t make themselves all that helpable. For example, it’s doubtful I’m going to water the plant in my office unless it looks like needs to be watered. We all need support. The only way to get it is to ask for it and be specific in the process.

Now, if you feel persistent feelings that keep you from living and working well most days, get in touch with a professional counselor. You can find one through your local hospital, your EAP (Employee Assistance Program), referrals, your public health department, support groups or your clergy.

In extreme cases, when suicide is a thinking pattern you must seek help right away. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which also serves as a Veterans Crisis Line.