The Last Straw — Managing Your Allostatic Load

Jake Block

“It is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
— Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

“allostasis | ˌaləˈstāsis |nounthe process by which the body responds to stressors in order to regain homeostasis.”Man is subject to three main types of stress; acute, episodic acute, and chronic. Let’s take a brief look at the characteristics of each.

Acute stress is something that we all experience from time to time. During your day, you might narrowly escape an accident in your car. Suddenly you feel that sinking feeling in your gut, or perhaps have that vague feeling of impending doom, when you’re late with a project for work, or you obsess over something that could go wrong, even though it hasn’t yet. Acute stress can cause you to experience a variety of somatic maladies, from anxiety to sadness, headaches, back pain, migraine, or even chest pains unrelated to a heart problem. These are generally short in duration, and subside once the stress subsides.

One also might experience unpleasant extensions of the cause of our acute stress, because a characteristic of that form of stress is that we replay the episodes over and over in our minds. Eventually, most such unpleasant memories fade and lose potency, although we can feed upon out depression and its circumstances, requiring us to find methods to relax and recuperate.Episodic acute stress can be found in people who experience a series of stresses routinely, causing them to be tense and on edge as a life condition. This can be caused by being overburdened at work, or in taking on too many personal and interpersonal traumas. A characteristic of these stresses and mental traumas is that they are related, so that it seems as if one can never quite recover from them, and the resultant effects on one’s body and mind are cumulative. They can affect relationships at home or in one’s career.

A characteristic of episodic stress is that the effects are often enhanced by unhealthy personal habits, such as binge drinking, overeating, or clinging to bad relationships or working situations. In this, staying with a person as a friend or love interest that seems to be at the center of most of the problems in one’s life, or continuing employment in a job that is unsatisfying, stressful or economically unsatisfying can set one up for serious illness, such as clinical depressions and heart disease.

Often, people suffering from episodic acute stress can find relief in physical activity or therapy to help them deal with the causes of that stress.

Chronic stress is the unrelenting stress that can grind us down over the years. Its causes are found in a life that is seriously out of control and seemingly beyond our ability to change, such as poverty, war or racism that affects our lives in a deeply personal and oppressive way. Many times, the accumulated effects of chronic stress are such that an individual simply gives up hope of ever feeling “normal” or living a stress free lifestyle ever again. They simply begin to live their life in ways to accommodate their personal reality that is reality as seen through the filter of that crushing stress in order to make it day to day.

Not all stress is “bad stress,” however, and some people live with stress without its debilitating effects. Some people find the adrenaline rush of stressful situations to be exciting. High energy and high impact sports can be stressful, however that stress, when channeled and processed in the context of “exercise and recreation” does not share the same detrimental effects with the types of stress we have examined. Neither does the type of stress one endures through popular entertainments, such as the anxiety and fear producing experiences that one might find in one of the commercial “haunted houses” or in the suspended disbelief of an extreme depiction of horror, as one immerses oneself in the drama unfolding before them. This type of stress was popular in the TV program Fear Factor, in which contestants were subjected to frightening visions and experiences of increasing stress levels.

This fourth kind of stress is called eustress, with is seen as a normal and mostly psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for those who experience it as a form of entertainment. Dr. Michael Genovese, M.D., J.D. (Chief Medical Officer, Acadia Healthcare), says that “eustress is usually a product of nerves, which can be brought on when faced with a fun challenge. This is important because, without eustress, our well-being can suffer. Eustress helps us stay motivated, work toward goals, and feel good about life.”

Psychologists have found that employing eustress as a mitigation to unhealthy stress can provide positive benefits. Examples of this can be found in setting challenging goals relating to your personal interests. Travel also provides an opportunity to employ eustress’ palliative qualities, as one explores new cultures and oneself in the experience and the stresses or meeting new people and experiencing new surroundings. And of course, physical conditioning in challenging pursuits, such as weight lifting and strenuous workouts that increase in difficulty and complexity employ good stresses as well.

The term “allostasis” is used to clarify the ambiguities associated with the generic term “stress,” referring to the processes that maintain homeostasis (the tendency toward a stable equilibrium), through the body’s natural production of such chemicals as cortisol and adrenalin, that promote adaptation to acute stress. However, these chemicals also contribute o what is known as the “allostatic overload,” being the wear and tear sustained by the body in reaction to mind and body from being “stressed out” over an extended period of time.Every system in your body responds to acute challenges and stresses. When these responses are overtaxed, the the condition known as allostatic overload is the result. The brain secretes stress hormones, chiefly, adrenalin and cortisol in response to perceived threat, and that response becomes “cataloged” in the brain for replication in future threats of the same type. When the perceived threat is ongoing for an extended period of weeks, however, neurons that formed based on the perceived threat can atrophy, and that cataloged response is “forgotten.” Still more neurons grow and that amplifies and enhances the perceived threat.The key to relieving stress and lightening the allostatic load is to learn to balance the stress in one’s life, weighted as much toward the benign state of eustress. A great rollercoaster has its moments of sheer terror, but they are purposely nestled into moments of fast movements and, soaring loops and exhilaration before that screaming drop and ultimate smooth deceleration to safety. It’s a great metaphor for a great life, when you think about it, however, the lives of most people are not nearly as well planned or managed to balance exhilaration against stress.

Henry David Thoreau observed that, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” I would be hesitant to disagree to any great extent, but I would add that must of the “quiet desperation” could be done away with if men did not so readily volunteer to take on the desperation of others, when he would be better served by letting others shoulder their own.

Consider how much of your stress is brought about by the chaos in the lives of those around you. It’s not eustress, your beneficially benign shot of adrenaline that shouts “HEY!!” in your ear to wake you up, but that grinding stress in the background of your life that nags incessantly. Unfortunately, we’re raised believing that we are, at some level, our brother’s keeper, and in the background we hear The Hollies singing, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother,” but realistically, your brother IS heavy, and while it’s normal to want to help, it’s healthier for all if everyone carries their own weight, as much as possible. Help when you can, but never at the cost of your own well being, or that of your immediate family.

The final thought in the management of your allostatic load is in the place you call home. You’ve seen me write about the creation of your own alternative reality in the place you live. It doesn’t have to be as meticulously managed as LaVey’s Black House, but it should be a place that you can unplug as much as possible from the grinding stress of survival, to the cocooning feeling of a place that is yours, and yours alone; a place you share only with those closest to you. You will be amazed at the difference such a place can make in your life, especially if you are a “type A” personality, like me. You live with the stresses of a fast paced, high energy working environment until it feels “normal.” A comfortable and pleasant home life can ease that.

I finally decided to retire from the working world when I was 52 years old and a stressed out mess, most of the time. I was making good money, living in northern California. I had a cookie cutter house that was “nice” and “convenient” and “expected,” and of course, “close to work.” Having been working at a high stress level since I was 19 years of age, it had become my normal, along with the high blood pressure, sleepless nights and on the edge feelings that “normal” brought along with it.

When I told my next door neighbor that I was moving to “middle of nowhere, Tennessee,” he told me, “You know, Jake, the slower pace there might help you live longer… or make it feel longer.” He was right. I’m much more relaxed and even tempered thas I was in a urban setting, and when I need that shot of adrenaline, from time to time, I go to where I can get my eustress fix, and then return to the place I can relax. It’s my place called “home.”

  1. Bruce McEwen, Stressed or Stressed Out – Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Sep 2018
  2. Shweder R. America’s latest export: a stressed-out world. New York Times 1997 Jan 26;Sect 4:5(col 1.)
  3. McEwen BS, Wingfield JC. The concept of allostasis in biology and biomedicine. Horm Behav 2003;43:2-15.
  4. Sapolsky RM. Why stress is bad for your brain. Science 1996;273:749-50.
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