Recently, my illustrations have been exploring Chronic Stress and Burnout. One way of understanding this slow process of burning out is through the concept of allostatic load. Allostatic load refers to a body’s ability to maintain homeostasis in the face of stressors.
While bodies are exceptionally good at maintaining basic stability – that is: a regular temperature, a normal pH level, oxygenation of the blood, appropriate hydration, etc. – allostasis refers to the delicate relationship between brain and body, or stress and emotions, to maintain internal equilibrium in the midst of releasing chemicals that help us flee in a panic, fight off a threat, or return to a resting state when a threat has passed.
Our bodies and brains initiate certain biological processes in response to stressors. These processes help us to fight or flight (or freeze or fawn) and then return to a calm state following that stress. Over time, if these biological processes are constantly overtaxed from being called upon too often, then our “allostatic load” is said to be high, and our body and brains become less effective at responding to stress or threat and calming down once a threat has passed. This can often be a part of an individual’s experience of burnout.
Homeostasis and allostasis compared:
Homeostasis is how bodies stay balanced (i.e. regulating a temperature, pH level, hydration, etc.). Homeostasis is basic body function
Allostasis is the combination of body responses to stress that help brains and bodies return to optimal functioning.
When I begin creating and sharing resources around the concept of allostatic load and leading conversations on the topic on social media, I realized that it’s common for people to not know how to pronounce allostatic load. While I generally leave that to the experts and phonetic translation, I believe deeply that conversations about mental health matter – and having conversations about mental health depends on both our own ability to describe our own emotional experience and our mental health vocabulary. You can listen to both allostatic and allostasis being spoken via this dictionary link.
How can we reduce our allostatic load?
- reduce stress where possible
- use social supports
- move, rest, and play
- get enough sleep
- eat well
- seek care as needed
A Messy but accurate visual: People are often surprised to learn that most of trauma therapy isn’t actually talking directly about trauma- it involves getting to know ourselves and our needs without judgment, learning to extend genuine kindness and care inward, and growing skills to advocate for what we need in order to thrive.
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Image description for screen readers.
Handwritten text reads: the burden of the body to correct for the impact of stress is allostatic load.
We used to think stress works like this: [small balls labeled “S” are dropping onto a person who is batting them away, balls that have fallen away are shown at the bottom deflated with the text “and went away after”}
Now we know that when stress keeps coming it adds up: [the same person is shown trying to back away balls labeled with us but in this version the balls are piling up and spilling over]
caption: lots of stress depletes the body’s ability to rebalance, like padlocks on a scale. [Image shows the scale with one side weighed down by padlocks]
In the final section in the lower right, a person is shown crying as they look at a paper that says “mildly upsetting thing”. The caption reads: when our allostatic load is too high for the system to work, we may FREAK OUT at things we normally would not