Allostatic Load, Chronic Stress, and Burnout


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.

Allostatic Load

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.

Lots of stress depletes the body's ability to re-balance

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

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 our allostatic load is too high for the system to work, we may FREAK OUT at things we normally would not.

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 allostatic load?

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
hand drawn doodle of text about trauma survivor's needs explained in this article

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.

Download a Printable PDF of this Resource:

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. [Image shows 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. [Image shows the same person is shown trying to back away from balls labeled with “S” but in this version, the balls are piling up and spilling over.]

Lots of stress depletes the body’s ability to rebalance, like padlocks on a scale. [Image shows a scale with one side weighed down by padlocks.]

Homeostasis is how bodies stay balanced (i.e. regulating temperature, ph, hydration) [Image of a thermometer is drawn.]

Allostasis is the combination of body responses to stress that help brains and bodies return to optimal functioning. [Image of a brain with a heart on it is drawn.]

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.”

How we can reduce our allostatic load? [An arrow is drawn, pointing to a bullet-pointed list.] Reduce stress where possible; use social supports; move, rest, and play; get enough sleep; eat well; and seek care as needed.

Image created by @LindsayBraman.

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