Allostasis and Your Bucket of Stress

If it feels like this year has been smacking you in the face with a new amount of stress every. single. day. then read on, my friend.

To get a better understanding of how our body deals with stress we need to first address the concept of ‘good stress’ and ‘bad stress’. I hate to break it to you but this concept is purely fiction - wether we label stress as good or bad our body sees it all the same. Have a big project due at work or school? Let the diet fall off and been eating fast food lately? Hit the gym three days in a row with lung burning workouts? Have a few nights of sub-par sleep in a row? Your body (nervous system, endocrine system, metabolic system) is going to respond to all of these stressor very similarly.

This brings us to a term most of us have some level of familiarity with - homeostasis. Homeostasis is defined as ‘the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium’; or simply, balance. Well, what’s equilibrium, in terms of your body? This is going to look different for everyone, but I would define this as being in a position to be able to meet the energy demands of your day. These demands will look different for an athlete, office worker, stay at home mom, etc.

By energy demand I mean the cognitive, metabolic, and emotional demands of the day. This means that ‘homeostasis’ may look different from day-to-day. For this reason I see ‘homeostasis’ as a range rather than a set point.

Allostasis is the process by which the body responds to stress in order to regain homeostasis. So, homeostasis is something that our body is constantly striving for, but does it ever accomplish finding it? The simple answer is, ‘no’. The complex answer is, ‘kind of’.

Allostatic load (I promise this is our last new term) is the ‘wear and tear’ on the body as we are exposed to repeated stress.

The trick to achieving your personal homeostatic range is being able to handle a large allostatic load with experiencing small amounts of ‘wear and tear’.

A successful day is one where I was able to meet the cognitive, metabolic, and emotional demands of the day.

Time to put those imagination caps on. I like to think everyone has a 5 gallon bucket that they can dump the day’s stressors in. Cut off in traffic, put it in the bucket. Co-worker really got on your nerves, bucket. Forget to wear a jacket on a cold morning, bucket. So long as this bucket doesn’t overflow you’ll be able to make it through your day - once your day’s stress starts flowing over the edge of that bucket you’re in trouble, though.

Now here’s where things get interesting, you can change the size of your bucket. Regularly getting 8+ hours of sleep? Bigger bucket. Diet slipping and getting a few more cheeseburgers than normal? Smaller bucket. Regular meditation/breath practice? Bigger bucket. etc. etc.

If we take a close look at what our day brings us we’ll be able to make an assessment about how much room we have left in the bucket. Sometimes this means taking it easy in the gym and just getting some movement in. Sometimes this means skipping the gym all together to get a good meal and a good night’s sleep.

If you’re feeling burnt out, are dealing with some nagging injury, or just find yourself being a grump take a minute to evaluate how full your ‘bucket’ is. Sometimes making the bucket bigger is the answer, other times throwing less stressors in the bucket is the answer.

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