You’re probably thinking “What the heck is allostatic load, anyways?” We will get to it, but first – a refresher course in biology.
Homeostasis & Allostasis
Do you remember the term “Homeostasis” from your high school science class? Let me refresh your memory. Homeostasisis defined as “is the tendency to resist change in order to maintain a stable, relatively constant internal environment”. It refers to all of things that we want to be stable within our bodies, even if we aren’t in the most ideal environment. For example, we want our body temperature to stay relatively at 97.9 degrees, regardless of the temperature of the room we are in.
Correspondingly, Allostasis refers to “the process by which the body responds to stressors in order to regain homeostasis”. Essentially, in order to achieve homeostasis, we need to adjust our psychological parameters in order to maintain stable functioning.
Defining Allostatic Load
Now that you have the necessary background information, I can answer your initial question. Allostatic load refers to the “wear and tear on the body” that accumulates when we are exposed to repeated or chronic stressors. These stressors can be internal, external or both.
Some examples of Internal Stressors include:
- Poor Nutrition
- Physical Strain
- Lack of Sleep
- Autoimmune Diseases
- FOMO (fear of missing out)
Some examples of External Stressors include:
- Life Changes
- Job / Work Related Issues
- Relationship Issues
- Screen Time
"Two little fish are swimming along together on their way to school. They swim past an old man fish, and because they are polite, they turn to him and say, “Good Morning, Sir!”. The old man fish turns of them and says, “Good morning, boys. How’s the water?” and then he swims off. The two little fish turn to each other and say, “What in the hell is water?”"
The point of this parable is to offer the idea that a lot of things that have always surrounded us are invisible to us, even though they are very real. They are structural or system forces that have direct influence on our lives, even though we cannot see them. We cannot see them because we either have not been trained to see them, or we have been actively trained not to see them. David Avruch, LCSW-C , also uses the image of a metaphorical fanny pack to describe what it’s like to carry allostatic load.
You’re probably wondering how this concept connects to mental health. According to David Avruch, LCSW-C , In terms of mental health, allostatic load refers to the burden that chronic stress places on a biological system over time. It’s an invisible burden that the body carries like a weight. This burden can, and often does, manifest into mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Additionally, allostatic load can subsequently contribute to major physical health problems such as obesity, heart disease and organ failure.
Allostatic load may be particularly heavy for specific populations. Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA community often carry a uniquely dense allostatic load due to systemic challenges they constantly face, whether they are cognizant of their load or not.
Allostatic load may also build up as a result of our engagement in non-secure-functioning relationships. According to Stan Tatkin, PhD, there is power in healing through our relationships. Secure-functioning relations reduce the allostatic load of individuals. Side-note: This is a huge area of focus in the couples work done by Susan Stork, LCPC, NCC at SBCS.
So, what can we do?
A weight you’ve been carrying your entire life isn’t going to easily disappear overnight. However, for the sake of your mental and physical health, it’s important to take steps to identify and gradually lessen your allostatic load. I realize, some things we cannot change – at least not anytime soon. Focus on small, gradual changes and you may be amazed by what they surmount to. Some ways that you may lessen your allostatic load include:
Developing and maintaining a regular self-care practice
Attending talk-therapy to explore and understand what builds up your load
Finding a creative outlet, through which you can experience flow
Engaging in secure-functioning relationships
It is important to understand that allostatic load isn't something we can completely eliminate. However, through the practice of self-care, creative outlets, and secure relationships, we certainly can lessen the load, and in turn, lessen the strain on our physical and mental health.
Questions to Consider:
- What contributes to the weight in your metaphorical fanny pack ?
- Are these factors within your control? Is there anything you can do the lessen the load?
- How can you personally utilize self-care and creative practices to lessen your load?
Noelle Benach is a graduate intern at Space Between Counseling Services. Following the completion of her Master's degree at the University of Baltimore this December, Noelle plans to seek LCPC licensure. Noelle is passionate about working with Baltimoreans, particularly members of the LGBTQIA community and quarter-lifers. When she's not interning or studying, Noelle enjoys spending time with her fiancé and their corgi, cats and bearded dragon. Noelle is a self-proclaimed "foodie", lover of coffee, and crafter.
Interested in working with Noelle? Click HERE to learn more.