Are you buckling under Allostatic Overload? What are the signs?

You’re stressed. You feel worn out, drained and flat. The future looks uncertain. You can’t keep hold of your emotions and your sleep is suffering. Your muscles are tense. You’ve become hyper-vigilant. Your body’s stress hormones are surging. And it is utterly exhausting.

The last couple of years have been difficult for everyone thanks to Covid, bringing a fresh collection of concerns and risks to deal with on top of the usual preoccupations of working life. Humanity’s current circumstances create a perfect storm for kicking the brain’s stress response into high gear and holding it there. At times like this Allostatic Load can become a problem, leaving you overloaded and in no fit state to do, never mind perform your best.

Read on to find out all about Allostatic Overload, how it feels, and what you can do about it.

What is Allostatic Overload?

As Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines say in their interesting Harvard Business Review article – Coping with Fatigue, Fear, and Panic During a Crisis:

“This impact begins physiologically. ‘Allostatic load’ refers to the cost of chronic or extreme wear and tear on our bodies, mind, and emotions. Allostatic overload occurs when demand on our internal resources exceeds our capacity. The fear and uncertainty fuelled by the COVID-19 crisis is putting extreme pressure on our finite resources. The consequences include poor decision-making, breakdown, and burnout.”

So Allostatic overload is a physical and mental condition triggered by an overload of ongoing stress. The pandemic has seen it increase thanks to all the uncertainty and change we’ve been faced with. Increasing numbers of us find our stress button is always in the ‘on’ position, and even if we realise what’s happening to us in the first place we have no idea how to switch it off. And as it turns out, prolonged stress affects everything from our mood and memory to the health of our cardiovascular system.

Allostasis is very like homeostasis, when the body is held within the narrow limits of the conditions we need to survive. Take our body temperature. When we get hotter than the usual 98.6F or 37C, we risk brain damage, organ failure, and death. Our brains tell us to sweat to cool down in much the same way they make us shiver when we’re cold. The same goes for the flight or fight response, where the brain tells the body to do what’s required to survive. Allostasis means we get into a stressed state, then get stuck in it.

Allostatic overload is particularly concerning because it’s a challenge to realise when you’re suffering from it. Danger is sensed, the brain responds to cope with the danger, the heart rate goes, up, blood pressure goes up, we breathe faster and we automatically go into emergency immune system mode. It’s a survival thing. But it’s often hard to discern.

It’s easy to get into an overloaded state when you’re faced with long working hours, have far too much to do, or are experience one or more of the many other stresses and strains that can make working life such a challenge. Dealing with difficult people, conflict, burn-out, rust-out, the pressure to sell, performance targets, peer pressure and more.

Can you re-stabilise yourself?

According to Dr. Don Bosch, Clinical Psychologist at the Headington Institute, it is entirely possible to achieve stability in the midst of change. Thanks to two decades of careful studies into the phenomenon, these days we understand quite a lot about how the stress circuits of the brain work and how to deal with Allostasis.

You may like to listen to Dr. Don Bosch’s video below talking about his subject:

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The ability to know when you’re suffering from Allostatic Overload involves self-knowledge and a good level of resilience. And resilience can be beautifully defined as more or less anything that switches the Allostatic mode off, leaving you calm and relaxed.

Tips for handling Allostatic Overload

First, be aware of the risks and symptoms of this type of overload. It’s always easier to notice something when you know what to look out for. If you’re feeling worn out, angry, frustrated, out of control, even on the edge of tears then these are signs to take notice of quickly. If you feel that you are unable to cope, it could well be down to the long-term activation of your body’s regulatory systems that leads to Allostasis, the cumulative effects of stress.

Can you cope with Allostatic Overload?

Yes, you can. Surviving it has strong links with overall resilience. It’s all about nurturing resilient behaviours.

Social support, physical exercise, and a simple sense of meaning and purpose can all help you to manage the Allostatic Load. Other resilient behaviours you can bring into play include:

  • Acknowledge you’re struggling rather than deny it to yourself
  • Being kind to yourself, not giving yourself such a hard time
  • Keep your aims tangible
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get out in the fresh air
  • Find a bedtime routine that helps you sleep
  • Find social support from friends, colleagues and family
  • Care for yourself through eating well
  • Be realistic about standards, performance levels, and goals
  • Become more grounded generally
  • Develop a mindfulness practice
  • Keep nurturing your sense of humour
  • Control what you can, don’t even try to control the things you can’t
  • Enjoy fun activities and interests that have nothing to do with work

One-on-one coaching builds better awareness

Our coaching will build new awareness, help you manage the extraordinary pressures many of us feel these days, and rebuild your natural resilience. Contact us for an initial discussion.