Dealing with Toxic People

We all have those people in our lives that thrive off drama.  They appear to live for the next big crisis and if one doesn’t appear, they will create one.  Being around individuals like this can cause us a great deal of stress.  Just a few days of exposure to stress can affect the part of our brain that is responsible for reasoning and memory.   When chronic stress – situations where recurring conditions cause intense stress – can do significant harm to our brain function.   Under these conditions, the body will make more cortisol than it has a chance to release and can cause irreversible damage to the brain’s communication center, disrupt synapse regulation, killing brain cells, and can even reduce the size of your brain. 

A recent study performed by the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that create strong negative emotions caused brains to have a massive stress response.  These emotions can often be found when dealing with toxic people. 

There are numerous strategies emotionally intelligent people employ when dealing with people who seem to pull us down. It is important to recognize who those people are in your life and build a plan for how you are going to deal with them in the future. Below are 6 skills to help you deal more effectively with toxic people. 

1) Don’t get sucked in

Toxic people drive you crazy because their behavior is often irrational. Unfortunately, we can often find ourselves getting sucked into their drama.  When someone is constantly creating drama what they are really after is attention and when we react, we are sending the message that it is an effective way to get our attention.  Much like when my children were younger and my older son would pick on my younger son, just to get a reaction out of him.  I would explain to my younger son,” if you would not react then your brother will stop.  He just wants to see if he can get a reaction from you. “ No reaction means that the toxic person will stop trying to pull you into their drama.  If you won’t play along, they will stop using you to validate their position.

2) Stay Positive

When a toxic person tries to drag you down with such negative talk, it is important for you to look at the positive side of the situation.  Any positive thought focuses your brain on something stress-free. Begin with asking – What is one thing that is positive or good about this situation? What is one opportunity within this situation?  Staying positive doesn’t mean that things are okay, it only means that you know you will be okay no matter how things turn out. 

3) Keep Perspective

In these crazy times, it is often hard to keep perspective.  Your drama ridden friends and family don’t help.  They often encourage you to be more fearful and to imagine what is happening as being an event that would have a permanent and pervasive impact on your life.  The reality is that there are very few things in life that will have a lasting pervasive impact.  Fewer things are permanent.  Remember, “this too will pass.”  Look for the bigger picture and think clearly without getting caught up in their emotions.  You can’t control others, but you can control how you respond. 

4) Be Grateful

There is a growing body of research that shows there are many psychological benefits to being grateful.  These benefits include lowering stress, depression, and anxiety, and experiencing gratefulness can improve your mood-reducing cortisol levels by 23%.   There is also evidence that suggests being grateful can improve your quality of sleep, cardiovascular (heart) health, and immune function.  During conversations with negative people try asking them (and yourself) what they have to be grateful for, even make a game out it.  Encourage them to tell you the top 10 things that they are most grateful for today.  Not only does this grateful challenge lower stress levels, but it diverts the negative conversation into a more positive one.

5) Set Boundaries

Negative people are bad news because they like to dwell in negative situations. They want you to join this pity party of theirs so they can feel validated. Often, we feel pressure to listen to them for fear of being seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into a negative emotional spiral.

One way to avoid this is by setting limits and distancing yourself when necessary. Take control of the conversation is one way to help set boundaries.  Let negative people in your life know that you choose to focus on the positive influences in your life.  Try redirecting their emotions; when they bring you problems, ask them what they might do to manage or fix the situation. 

Understand that some people will not respect your boundaries no matter what you do.  When this happens, try distancing yourself from them when possible.  Detaching doesn’t mean you don’t care about them, it means you’re taking care of yourself and being realistic about what you can do. 

6) Focus on solutions, not problems

When tough times hit, it is easy to focus on the negatives and all the problems in your life.  Your emotional state is determined by where you place your focus. Individuals who can get through setbacks are the ones who focus on solutions, not more problems.  When you fixate on the problems, you create negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions that can better your circumstances, you create a sense of usefulness producing positive emotions and reducing stress.

When it comes to toxic people, quit thinking about how distressing they are, and focus instead on how you are going to handle your next interaction with them. This will begin to make you more effective by putting you in control and will reduce the amount of stress when being with them.

Remember, every day new problems arise, but you have a choice to either be part of the problem or the catalyst for a solution.