Stress has become a catch-all for any taxed mental state. But, attributing the effects of stress to a single term has two significant consequences.
First, we assume the burden of stress ends as each situation does. Since we experience the sensation so often, it becomes commonplace and “no big deal.”
Second, instead of dealing with stressors, we try to control for stress after the fact. It’s not about preventing stress, but recuperating from its prolonged effects. In reality, this is the exact behavior that leads us to feel stressed out.
In 1997, the New York Times put it,
“Imprecise and evasive language may be a disaster for science, but it is a boon in everyday life. I am stressed out is non-accusatory, apolitical and detached.”
We can do no harm, except to ourselves, by attributing anxiety and personal issues to stress. And, in our daily lives, that’s considered ‘appropriate.’ Otherwise, sharing our stress would be a burden to others, a social faux-pas to all but our closest friends.
As the NYT continues,
“It is a good way to keep the peace and, at the same time, a low-cost way to complain.”
In 1993, Bruce McEwen and Eliot Stellar coined the term “allostatic load.”Allostatic load describes the cumulative degradation of our body triggered by allostasis. And, allostasis represents the body’s efforts to maintain homeostasis through psychological change.
The first time I read through that paragraph, it read like a foreign language. But it’s important to understand because it describes how stress affects our body. So, here it is again, in plain English.
“Stress is a physiological change that throws our bodies out of equilibrium.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that McEwen would expand on the definition of allostatic load — giving us a way to discuss toxic stress.
What is Stress?
At its start, stress covered a vast range of physiological responses. Every ailment under the sun was attributed to stress. And, things were almost wholly negative.
We now know that stress can be both good (eustress) and bad (distress). Its effects can be short term. A fact many who believe they, “work better under pressure” try to take advantage of. As an aside, that’s a baseless claim. Those people are exceptional procrastinators though. Or long-term, involving fatigue, anxiety, and an inability to cope.
For long term negative stress McEwan prefers the term “stressed out.” The state he believes we’re most concerned with when we mention stress.
We often forego mentioning the positive side of stress. Stress helps you focus and gives energy when you’re starting difficult work you enjoy. It’s only after prolonged exposure that we begin to talk about feeling stressed out.
Evolution bestowed us with complex communication systems between our brain and body. This interplay results in our ability to respond stressors, but also to overreact. We should worry about overreactions and chronic stress as they lead to poor health.
McEwan and colleagues developed an enhanced framework to differentiate positive and negative stress. This framework centers around the allostatic load, the cumulative effects of toxic stress.
The wear and tear resulting from stressors are called allostatic load. When pressed beyond normal means our body enters allostasis. From here it attempts to bring us back into homeostasis. Allostatic states cause our brain to under and oversupply neurological chemicals, resulting in a physiological imbalance.
Examples of allostatic states include sustained depression, chronic sleep deprivation, and hypertension. These states are deep-rooted and signal prolonged changes in stress response.
For many American families, the holiday season will produce an allostatic state. We have a heightened sense of urgency to deal with unfamiliar stressors. We’ve got to budget for gifts, keep our home clean, prepare dinner, deal with family, and battle weather.
You can mitigate allostatic states by eating more, a hallmark of the holiday season. But, the unforeseen; difficult social interactions and unexpected costs, act as additional stressors. Some situations, like a catastrophic meeting, result in overload, exposing you to illness.
Sources of Allostatic Load
Four primary factors lead to allostatic load. They have significant overlap, and you could experience a range of them due to the same incident. But, they are distinct, and it is critical to recognize their differences.
- Repeated exposure to multiple new stressors and the accompanying stress response. Even small stressors, if experienced in succession, can represent a significant problem. Without relief, our bodies can’t return to equilibrium, making us feel stressed out.
- Failure to manage repeated stressors of the same kind. We’re often faced with similar stressful situations in our lives. It can be difficult to mitigate these events because of a lack of control or fear of reprisal. Some conditions, such as stress from a commute, have actionable solutions we ignore. Others, like difficult interpersonal relationships, can feel as though they might resolve themselves. Regardless, without intervention, you’re bound to experience chronic stress.
- Failure to turn off your stress response in time. It’s difficult to know when to take time for yourself, but failure to do so has severe ramifications. Worse, overlapping demands can negate the positive effects of relaxation. In these situations, you add to allostatic load because you’re unable to disengage.
- Overreaction. This factor is most common during an overreaction to a stressor. And, something we’ve all done at one point or another with friends, family, or coworkers. Environments with overexposure to stressors make it difficult to respond appropriately. We might burst in anger due to reaching our tipping point. Or overindulge in our favorite snack to “feel good.” These responses often make a situation worse, but provide a momentary reprieve.
In response to stress, our brain releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals improve memory, hone our focus, and prepare the body to respond to threats. So, it’s not fair to say stress is wholly negative. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of many late nights of studying and sporting events. However, over an extended period, it leads to memory loss, poor sleep, and heart disease.
The terms meant to expand our definition failed to enter our everyday lexicon. But understanding them is crucial. If we’re only able to discuss our problems under an umbrella term, it weakens its impact. We may have already reached a point where responding to, “How are you” with “I’m stressed” is met with indifference.
Instead, I’d encourage us to be explicit when discussing our varying states of exhaustion. If it’s only in the short term, we should talk about the feelings of stress, where we don’t need a lot of outside help. But, when it comes to a lower quality of life, we should get serious about how stress affects us.
If we can do that, maybe we can stop brushing aside our struggles and start confronting them.