Stress & Allostatic Load
Grab a piece of paper and write down all the things in your average day that could possibly be a some kind of stress on your body, mind, and emotions. Potentially it could look something like the following;
Terrible Boss and/or workmates
Hate your job
Worrying about money
Dog (or child) woke me up early
Arguing with your partner
I ate less than ideal food last night
Unhappy with body image
We could go on…
Now imagine each one of the stressors as a little pebble/rock that adds to a jar… What happens when one by one, you keep adding pebbles to the jar.. Our ‘jar’ becomes full. The cumulative total of all the stuff (pebbles) in your life (the Jar) that causes physical, mental, and/or emotional stress — is known as your allostatic load. It is important to be conscious of the fact that all of the stressors be it physical, mental or emotional fill the same ‘jar’… so for example, if we are stressed about money or we’re having an argument with our spouse… it may negatively affect the physical aspect of our like, like our performance in the gym.
But Is All Stress Bad?
Nope. We need stress in our life. Stress pushes you out of your comfort zone, it allows us to grow, to get stronger. Lifting weights is a potential good stress, for example. Having a cold shower… That ‘fight or flight’ feeling you get when you’re nervous before a competition or a speaking event.. a good stress.
A popular quote is;
“Get comfortable being uncomfortable”
It’s true; Discomfort leads to growth.
However, too much stress in any aspect of our life starts to be detrimental.
We can try and group different stressors in 2 jars (loving this analogy atm)..
‘ Good Stress’ & ‘Bad Stress’
is over quickly
can be part of a positive life experience
inspires you to action
helps build you up — it leaves you better than you were before.
But what happens if you lift weights 4 hours a day, every day, with no recovery.. Now it doesn’t seem so productive and what once was a ‘good stress’ turns into a ‘bad stress’, it starts to have negative effects on us. No longer are we growing or progressing, now we are starting to go backwards…
lasts a long time
is negative, depressing, and demoralizing
de-motivates and paralyzes you
breaks you down — it leaves you worse off than you were before.
One of the main & potentially most important aspects of what makes a stressor ‘Good Stress’ or ‘Bad Stress’ is how quickly or well we recover from it…
To start, it’s important to note that the way we deal with different stressors will be vastly different for everyone.
Each of us has our own “recovery zone”, and there will be numerous physical, mental and emotional factors that will effect that. So just as important as the stress itself is how you perceive and respond to it.
Notice how some people just seem to go with the flow and seem to be almost oblivious to situations that others would find highly stressful events? This is because everyone handles these situations in vastly different ways. The good thing is there are things you can do to better handle stressors…. Many techniques to ‘empty your jar’/ recharge, and many ways to learn to turn potential bad stressors into good stressors, or at least; ‘not so bad stressors’
Let's have a look at some different variables that will affect how we respond to stressors:
Our attitude and outlook — People with optimistic, proactive and positive attitudes are more stress resistant. And people who view stressful events as a challenge, and realise that change is simply a part of life, have a far larger recovery zone and are far less vulnerable to stress.
Our life experience — Past stress can build us up or break us down, depending on when the stress happened and how powerful it was. Moderate stress at a time when we can handle it generally makes us better and more resilient. However, stress at a time when we’re already vulnerable (such as during childhood, or piled on top of other stressors) can actually leave us worse off.
Our genetic makeup and epigenetic expression — Some of us are genetically more “stress susceptible” than others, especially if we meet environmental factors that then epigenetically “switch on” or “switch off” those crucial genes. For instance, one study found that older people carrying a certain gene polymorphism suffered major depression only if they had something bad happen to them in childhood. The folks with the genetic variant who had normal childhoods were fine.
Our perception of control — Stress becomes most traumatic when we feel trapped. If we’re able to successfully fight or flight, we tend to recover better. But if we feel unable to change the situation, we’ll go to the next-stage stress response, the “freeze” response. This is when we feel helpless, hopeless, and paralysed. We may also get more stressed if we’re “control freaks” — constantly trying to grip, grab, and grasp everything tightly.
Our natural personality type — If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stressful events in stride. People who are more vulnerable to stress tend to feel like they have no ability to influence the events around them. They might also be highly empathetic and thus feel “pushed” and “pulled” by the needs and wants of others.
Our support network — A strong network of supportive friends and family members (which can even include pets) is a powerful buffer against the stress of life. Conversely, loneliness and isolation worsens stress.
Our ability to deal with our emotions — If you can’t calm and soothe yourself when feeling stressed or overly emotional, you’re more vulnerable to stress. The ability to level out your emotions will help you better handle adversity.
Our environment — Natural environments (e.g. outdoors, spaces with lots of windows and natural lighting, etc.) calm us down, as do secure and safe environments (such as your comfy living room). Industrial environments full of stimuli (e.g. noises, machinery, artificial lights, threats coming at us quickly, etc.) amp us up and put us on edge. We also feel more relaxed in environments we think we can control, such as our homes; We’re more anxious in environments we think we can’t control, such as large public spaces or most worksites.
Our allostatic load — The larger the allostatic load (in other words, the more stuff we’re dealing with at once), the more it wears down our resilience, and shrinks our recovery zone. How we respond to stress is critical, but the cumulative load of excess stress can wear down even the most resilient and positive person.
Let's have a closer look at our ‘Recovery zone’. As mentioned above, we all have a different recovery zone… or ‘sweet spot’ where the stressor is beneficial and allows us to grow & become stronger.
Image Courtesy of Precision Nutrition
If the stressor is too low — not enough to cause a reaction — then nothing will happen. You’ll go along the same as before, no better or worse.
If the stressor is too high — too strong, and/or lasts too long, outpacing your recovery ability — then you’ll eventually break down.
If the stressor is within your recovery zone — neither too much nor too little, and doesn’t last too long — then you’ll recover from it and get better.
‘Nothing comes from nothing’
We want enough “good stress” to keep us motivated… to keep us striving for more. That is human nature. it is programmed into us. It’s why year after year, decade after decade, humans progress as a species, we live longer, create better technology… its an incredible lucky trait to be programmed with… BUT, we want to balance that stress so we don’t break down and burn out.
That optimum zone depends on your allostatic load, as well as how you perceive and respond to it. Remember, this is your individual stress zone — nobody else’s.
We need to work in our optimal zone, recoverable stress. Again, this will be different for each individual, but also depending on your allostatic load. Remember, that is everything: mental, physical, emotional: that email from the boss, your parking fine, that tough training session this morning, that less than optimal meal you had last night… everything goes into the stress jar… altogether. It doesn’t discriminate.
If your jar is almost full, it won’t take many more pebbles to make it overflow… this is where we break. Where we become overwhelmed. Where things start to fall apart.
Sooo.. How do we fix this!?
We must learn to do the following;
Balance our life demands, workload, and exercise/ nutrition.
Control your mindset. View these responsibilities as an ‘i get to’ not an ‘i have to’.. most of these stressors really are first world problems that the majority of the world would give everything to have. It’s hard not to get caught up in your environment, but try to take a step back and realise how lucky you are to have these challenges… these opportunities.
Manage your allostatic load- Empty The Jar.
Below are some things that you should.. actually, you need to prioritise to help balance all of the ‘inputs’… Look at all of your stressors as ‘inputs’ (pebbles in the jar)… let’s look at the below as ‘outputs’ (emptying the jar).
Schedule and prioritise some of these.
Not necessarily all… the ones you will get the most fulfilment and/or relaxation out of.. just like you would an important business meeting.
listening to relaxing music
mindfulness practice or meditation
Spending time with loved ones
yoga, gentle mobility, and/or slow stretching exercises
gentle swimming or water immersion, especially in the ocean.
relaxing in a sauna
physical, non-competitive play
Spending time with friends Emptying your Jar is essentially, purposefully chasing relaxation.
Stress & anxiety management is a topic I’m super passionate about and something i am far from proficient in myself, however, as i get older I’m learning to be better, mostly from necessity…. I have found trying to be conscious of as well as implementing the above super helpful… Hopefully it can help you too.
This article is inspired by a lot of the reading i have been doing, especially some great content from Precision Nutrition, which is where the ‘Recovery Zone’ image is from.
- Coach Ben