During these unprecedented times, most of us have been experiencing powerful emotions, often alternating between feelings of loss, anxiety, anger and frustration, being overwhelmed, and at times even apathetic. I know I find myself trying to pause in order to understand what is happening and then I realize that all these powerful emotions get in the way of me even processing those powerful emotions.
What can help is to get the information that explains it. Explanations don’t necessarily make something better, but they can help normalize what is happening, which often reduces the anxiety of feeling like there is no good reason for what can feel like craziness.
The term is “allostatic load.”
Many trauma experts include the concept of allostatic load in their work. According to Wikipedia, “allostatic load is ‘the wear and tear on the body’ which accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress. The term was coined by McEwen and Stellar in 1993. It represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response which results from repeated or prolonged chronic stress.”
In our past blogs both Gerry Vassar and I have talked about the importance of regulation and how dysregulation can be viewed from a neuroscientific perspective: when someone is dysregulated the brain is operating in a lower region that is more about raw emotions or sensory responses/reactions to life experiences and the beliefs one has about how safe they are.
Wikipedia goes on to say: “Part of efficient regulation is the reduction of uncertainty. Humans naturally do not like feeling as if surprise is inevitable. Because of this, we constantly strive to reduce the uncertainty of future outcomes, and allostasis helps us do this by anticipating needs and planning how to satisfy them ahead of time. But it takes a considerable amount of the brain’s energy to do this, and if it fails to resolve the uncertainty, the situation may become chronic and result in the accumulation of allostatic load.”
Think about all the ways we have been surprised in recent months, uncertain about the future, fearful, anxious, sometimes filled with guilt and shame, or sometimes feeling rage at the injustices being uncovered. Imagine how your brain has been trying to cope with all this!
Wikipedia states, “The bad news is that, “ Allostatic load can result in permanently altered brain architecture and systemic pathophysiology.” The good news is that once we become aware of our allostatic load, we can be less stressed about our stress responses and can do things to reduce that stress, such as:
- Naming what is going on for you. Once you name it then you can claim it as real. Somehow that can legitimize all your intense reactions and emotions.
- Emphasizing in your own mind the things over which you have control: you can consciously choose to bring your own new norm into your family life so that there is predictability about daily routines. Your brain likes predictability.
- Considering ways to release some of the traumatic energy that builds up as a result of allostatic load and be intentional about releasing as much of that energy as possible. This includes exercising, yoga, mindfulness practices and any other ways you can allow that energy to be expelled.
- Focusing on the things that bring you joy, happiness and peace. Give yourself permission to take the time to “stop and smell the roses,” whatever that means to you.
- Commiserating with those around you who can hear your story and appreciate your feelings. Know that it is important to share outwardly what is going on inwardly.
- Expressing some of your strong emotions through journaling or some form of creative expression.
- Finding ways to make contributions to others. Altruism is another way we help our brain to heal.
When I feel those sensations of allostatic load, I am comforted by knowing that there is a legitimate reason for these and that there are some things I can do to help reduce that stress. I hope each of you will take the time to consider how allostatic load has impacted you and what you can do to help yourself. Knowing this can give you some tools to help those around you also understand what is probably going on for them and how they can effectively reduce their allostatic load.
Invitation for Reflection
- Consider specific things that have happened to you over these last few months that may have contributed to your levels of allostatic load. Give yourself credit for the power of all of these stresses and legitimize your responses to them.
- Consider specific ways you can claim your power to address some of the stresses of your allostatic load.
- Make sure you do a mental hygiene check and notice what you are saying to yourself. Recognize that this world crisis around the Covid is not your fault.
- Educate yourself with regard to the issues of racism. Knowledge is power and we all need to find the power that exists to better understand and address racism.
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute