• Finding Allostasis

Don't Just Do Something, Sit There

Updated: Oct 27

This post is about allostatic load (cumulative stress), set points, and full recovery.

"Don’t just do something, stand there,” the White Rabbit said to Alice in Wonderland. An inverted phrase (called a chiasmus) that can remind us to stop doing all the time and just sit, stand, or otherwise, be.

Allostasis is nature’s adaptation through anticipation of many daily life challenges, whether or not we recognize them as stressful. This process does not judge stress as good or bad (our perception does that), but simply allows our brain-body to shift and change as optimally as possible to what it expects next.

Stress accumulates over time and the cumulative effect is called allostatic load, like wear and tear on a bridge that develops weight bearing cracks from weather and never-ending vehicles rumbling across. For humans, allostatic load can lead to illness, disease, or dysfunction that occurs when our bodies are pressed and strained so much so that a new set point is required – something a bridge cannot do. Living creatures are remarkable in this way: we have allostasis as an ever-fluctuating and evolving process, and allostatic load tracking the story of our lives.

An example of this is how blood pressure rises to meet anticipated demands (allostasis in action); and hypertension develops when allostatic load is too high for too long without sufficient recovery to baseline. Blood glucose or muscle tension may do the same – increase to meet anticipated demands, then develop into diabetes or chronic pain, respectively. The same goes for cortisol, an important hormone to feel awake and function, but when pressed too far for too long loses its flexibility resulting in burnout and fatigue. Nothing can meet a new and higher anticipated demand forever without consequence.

Since every living organism experiences stress and carries a running meter of allostatic load, it begs us to be aware of our daily environment from a big picture standpoint. How much stress am I immersed in, perhaps so much so that I am not even aware of it? How much of it has become part of the air I breathe?

If you can free yourself from a stressful situation without entering into a more stressful one, do it. If you cannot, it is even more important for you to have practices for full and regular recovery. We can’t escape it all, but we can do something about it and that something is less. Just stand there, sit, or be, to help heal the day’s papercuts or perhaps much larger wounds. Teach your brain and body to expect recovery and wellness.

Practicing full recovery can hardly be overemphasized for wellbeing because our central nervous system needs restoration to baseline and even has the capability of resetting to a healthier baseline than ever before (i.e. post traumatic growth). Blood pressure and heart rate come down, cortisol and glucose regulate, immune function increases, muscles relax, heart rate variability increases, and so on. Restoration can occur when resources are not being strained. Truly resting trains our body to find a new set point; one that is more sustainable.

How we practice full recovery will take a different shape for each of us. It might help to use the acronym RISK to get started:

Regularity: a planned and regular time to rest. Add it to your calendar.

Intention: to deeply relax, rest, and recover for a set amount of time.

Safety: a physically comfortable and emotionally safe environment.

Kind abiding: with ourselves that includes patience and realistic expectations as we

learn to truly restore ourselves.

How much: Consider it as you might a medication dose -- two weeks of vacation per year won’t cut it. One or two super-doses of restoration won't release slowly over future months. One day per week is better, one hour per day, one minute per hour, or one breath per minute. Whatever you decide, you may need to increase the dose depending on what your allostatic load is.

How to Begin: It helps to begin with breath: Slow it down. Use your belly. Breathe through your nose if you can. Bring your attention to whatever you are doing at this moment. Allow your practice to deepen each time you commit to it. Invite yourself into full recovery from each difficult conversation or challenging event every single day. Don’t bother doing it perfectly, but do trust that practice over time will retrain your system to recover, freeing up untold resources within you.

Photo: Jessica Del Pozo, Lake Bemidji, MN.