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Allostasis: Why It Matters

Dr. Donald S. Bosch and Alicia Jones, M.A.
Headington Institute, 2014.


Humanitarian work can change people over time, both in beneficial and not so beneficial ways. Many operating in higher risk zones have experienced the thrill of the adrenaline high and the intense sense of purpose and satisfaction that it can bring. Yet that same satisfaction can make the rest of life seem too boring and unbearable. We can feel a growing restlessness or a difficulty relaxing and feeling content. The long and intense days of responding to a rapid onset disaster in a far off place can produce a tangible sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy, but then as the days and months wear on, we may find ourselves beginning to battle with chronic health issues. There are a whole range of factors that can contribute to this very mixed picture, but one of them can be tied to the concept of allostasis.

Our bodies work in a give and take kind of way. It’s brilliant when you get right down to it. But, when faced with certain demands or stresses our body adjusts for optimal efficiency – reallocating resources to help us meet the demands of the moment. Chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline pump through our body activating a system wide alert. Our heart rate increases, we breathe faster to get more oxygen, resources are directed away from our digestive system and instead to our muscles so we are ready for action, our immune system goes into hyperdrive to prepare for injury, our brain scans our environment, picking up on negative cues before we even realize it.

All of these automatic responses are amazingly protective in the short term, but in the long term they can backfire on us. The trick is that many of us operate in contexts that keep our systems on the high end of the arc for long periods of time. It could be that there are constant stressors that come so often that my systems are never able to fully relax. Or it could be that I’ve encountered something so difficult that I’m stuck in overdrive and can’t resolve the tensions. For whatever reason it is as if our gas pedal gets stuck on high.

The very responses that help us immediately, begin to have a bad effect the longer the pedal remains stuck. That’s when the symptoms of the backfire start showing up. The symptoms may look differently for different people. Back pain, difficulty sleeping, weakened immune system, jumpiness or agitation, stomach problems, blood pressure problems, are all common symptoms that the body is perhaps stuck in a new normal that was never meant to be normal.

In a best case scenario our body soon down-regulates and reallocates the resources in a way that is sustainable for normal day to day living. Along with the ramp up system just described, we also have a ramp down system. This system helps us to relax, to bring our heart rate back down and to go back to digesting our food normally. Both the ramp up and the ramp down systems need to be in good shape for us to be healthy and to stay resilient.

But what does it really mean for both systems to be “in good shape”? And how do we strengthen those systems?


Let’s start with the “ramping up systems.”

These are associated with the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system will prepare your system for action in response to crisis or danger. These changes happen all over your body in response to signals from the brain, but include: dilating pupils, accelerated heart rate, quickened breathing, heightened immune system, resources directed away from our digestive system and instead to our muscles, and the release of chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that keep us on high alert.

You’ll notice that many of the above changes involve the heart or lungs in some way. It’s safe to assume that the greater the crisis, the greater demand will be placed on these systems. If those systems are in good shape our adaptive capacity will be greater (1). In other words we’ll be able to ramp up to meet the demand. Researchers also hypothesize that we can increase our personal adaptive capacity to respond to stress (i.e. resilience) by maintaining an active lifestyle with regular exercise. Think of exercise as strength training for the heart and lungs or as building the adaptive capacity (1) of your sympathetic nervous system so that you are less likely to have your systems overloaded. Either way you look at it, your body is better prepared to manage stress. You have more to bring to the moment.


What about the “ramping down systems”?

These are associated with the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of these systems as those that are involved with bringing you down from the “ramped up” state back to a steady, resting state. Among many others, the changes in this system would include the slowing of the heart rate and breathing, the directing of resources back to our digestive system, and muscle relaxation. Psychologically, we may experience feelings of tranquility, peacefulness or contentment. Not surprisingly, many of the ways that we support the parasympathetic nervous systems involve practicing relaxation, gratitude, meditation, slow and deep breathing or yoga.

Keep in mind that strengthening the parasympathetic (ramping down) system is just as vital to resilience as the “ramping up skills.” Our system needs to be successful in completing the arc and returning to a steady state, otherwise we will ultimately experience wear and tear on our organs and tissues. (2) Many humanitarians and first responders find that they are quite used to the ramping up process, but have weaker skills for assisting the ramping down. This can be where bad habits like relying on alcohol or sleeping pills enter in as a quick fix for what my body may be having a hard time doing on its own.

Over the years, we’ve frequently described resilience as a discipline. This article provides a few hints as to why. The very fact that our behaviors and practices can either strengthen our whole biological response to stress or undermine it, should signal to us that resilience is much more than just a personality trait. What I do in the day-to-day impacts how I’ll handle crisis when it comes, the degree to which I’ll be able to stretch my resources to meet the need, and ultimately to recover well or bounce back.

(1,2) Mitochondrial allostatic load puts the ‘gluc’ back in glucocorticoids, Martin Picard, Robert-Paul Juster, and Bruce McEwan (2014) Nature Reviews, Endocrinology Picard Vol. 10, pg. 304-305

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