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The 3 Sneaky Ways Toxic People Wreak Havoc on your Brain

Sneaky ways toxic people wreak havoc on your brain.

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melitas / Shutterstock
melitas / Shutterstock

Toxic people impact us in different ways. Sometimes it feels like a slowly deflating balloon, while other times it feels as though the balloon is at max capacity, and you’re holding your ears, scrunching your shoulders in anticipation of it popping. 

There is no doubt that toxic people can change the entire atmosphere within a group as a whole. When someone has been identified as that person, the minute they walk into the room, you can feel the energy shift, literally. 

Regardless of your personal reaction to these encounters, toxic people have a tremendous impact on our own emotional well-being, in both the short and long-term.

We all know the short-term influence toxic people have on us (think about your personal balloon).  What you probably didn’t realize is how the interaction can last way beyond the exchange. 

Engaging with toxic people for long periods of time can change your brain, even enough that you begin to take on some toxic behaviors yourself. 

Your brain is a supercomputer, working in the background all day, taking in visual and audible clues, connecting them to actions and situations all so it can be as efficient as possible. 

When you are thinking about your day being happy, productive and creative, enhancing and linking those experiences are a fantastic thing.  However, when you consider the opposite, surrounding stimuli that are anything but positive, those connections are ones you don’t want to hold as your own. 

Extracting yourself from situations where toxic people are present is not only important for your short-term mental health but imperative for your long-term well-being.  


Here are three ways toxic people wreak havoc on your brain.

#1. Lowers your Energy Level:

I’m not talking about how alert we feel but how our inner energy impacts our emotions.

We have seven levels of energy within us. The top five are anabolic or high-energies. These are good energy and when you are at these levels you find yourself, creative, productive, happy, or content.  The other two are catabolic or low-energies. When our energy is here, it makes us angry, lowers our self-esteem or outright negative.

Scientifically, when you interact with someone toxic, that energy is absorbed and it excites your electrons. When electrons (energy) get excited, they then need to release energy and this process drains you. 

In everyday terms, even if your energy level going into the conversation is anabolic, the longer you are in the presence of someone toxic, the more it drains your battery, putting you in a catabolic state. The result is you feel physically exhausted and emotionally drained. 

#2. Monkey See, Monkey Do:

Humans have mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons are visual neurons that fire when you take an action. Mirror neurons also fire  when you see someone else take action.   These neurons fired as if you were the one doing the action. They are unable to differentiate your own actions from those actions of people you are with, they mirror those internal brainwaves. 


Exposed to these actions briefly, and you may get away with a quick empathetic reaction—you feel sorry for someone’s emotional distress. However, expose yourself to someone for a long time, those neurons start to imitate what they see on a subconscious level.

In everyday terms, you take on the emotional state of those negative behaviors without ever knowing it.

#3 Reinforces Negative Inner Dialogue:

The brain is primal, regardless of how developed you are as a human. Unfortunately, this means that it scans for perceived negative experiences and stores them up as a way to protect themselves and survive. 

While threats aren’t about life or death, our brain hasn’t evolved enough to know that. Interact with someone toxic, and they give you their famous passive-aggressive jab or turns your attention toward something that isn’t working around you, it triggers your neurons to fire your fight or flight mechanism and proceeds to link experiences with behaviors.

In everyday terms, your brain is firing responses without you knowing it, putting caution tape around experiences that wouldn’t have triggered you. 

Understanding the lasting imprint a toxic person can have on you should now fire your own primal instinct to steer clear.  Yes, that may be easier said than done, because sometimes you have no control over the environment you are in (think office or family).

So what do you do when you come in contact with someone toxic? 

Don’t Fuel the Fire: When toxic coworkers complain or gossip, don’t agree in the slightest. Reinforcing their behavior will ultimately reinforce your brain’s belief in their actions. 

Instead, practice defusing the situation with a simple, ‘sorry you feel that way’ and walk away. This will shorten the time you need to spend with them and make it very clear about your own personal boundaries. 

Spread Joy:  Just like negativity can be like a disease that spreads wildly, so can positive emotions.  When someone complains about their workload, quote a funny line from a movie, or brush right over the complaint with a joke.

Do whatever necessary to keep the tone upbeat. You can actually feel the energy shift.


Rewrite your Story: When you are aware of the toxic person, you walk into every interaction with a story in your head like Sally is going to start complaining about the deadline or Marc is going to make sure everyone knows how much he sold this week. 

Change that story, instead say, poor Sally struggles with managing deadlines.  This way your brain won’t automatically scan for those negative comments from Sally.

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