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balancing the allostatic load

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

One of the things that brings me joy, that makes me feel alive, powerful, and free, is physical training. I love to sweat, to move, to swing heavy things. It helps me to complete the stress cycle, reinforces my sense of agency and strength, and (because I am often outside), gives me a chance to soak in nature.

Of course, I can’t do that every day. My muscles need a chance to rest and repair– and I also need to take into account everything else that I’ve done that day (training clients, filming classes, etc). That makes sense, right? Physically, there’s only so much the body can handle. If I tried to push through when my body wasn’t ready, I might not have the energy or ability, or I’d risk injury.

What’s often overlooked is that we need to take into account more than just the physical activities that we’re engaging in. Is work overwhelming? How many difficult conversations did you have today? Are you under financial stress? When’s the last time you were able to get out of the house and have fun? See your family? Get a hug from someone you love? Are you worried about your health? The electoral college? The environment?

Any kind of stress has a physical cost; we pay with our body’s energy stores. Our body responds to a stressor by preparing us to run: muscles tense, heartbeat goes up, endorphins flood our bloodstream. Every system in our body is PRIMED FOR ACTION. Yet for many of us, the stress doesn’t let up. We can’t run, we can’t fight, and unless we are actively doing something to complete the stress response, we are living with the effects of cumulative overwhelm in every system of our body. If you ever been under sustained stress, you know how exhausting that is.

(need a refresher on how the nervous system deals with stress? read this post).

The amount of stress our body (+brain, +nervous system) is under at any given moment is called allostatic load. When our allostatic load is too high, our health suffers. If (like me!) you’re someone who thrives on movement, or who craves physical activity to release stress and feel good, you may find that in times of greater stress (for example, 2020), you are not able to train as hard. Your system doesn’t know the difference between different types of stress, so we need to find ways to stress it less.This means that you may need to back off on the weight you’re lifting or the pace you’re keeping. You might need to train less frequency, or start incorporating other types of training instead.

How do you know when you’re in a state of allostatic overload? Physically or emotionally, you might feel drained. Your muscles might feel achy or sore, or you find old injuries cropping up. You might feel like you don’t want to move at all, or you might feel fidgety. Maybe your mind seems to be cycling endlessly through repetitive thoughts. Every system responds differently to stress, so you will have your own experience. But I bet you have some ideas already about what it feels like to you.

In my last post, I suggested that it’s really important to understand your nervous system, and to be able to support it. Recognizing your current allostatic load is a great start. When I am feeling exhausted from stress, I know that I still need to complete my stress cycle in order to reset my nervous system. I’m not able to take on a big sweaty training session, but I can take a long walk. Research shows that optic flow, which includes forward movement like walking, running or biking (not a treadmill/stationary bike– what your eyes take in has to match up with what your body is doing!), reduces anxiety. I know that’s true for me.

What about restorative or yin yoga, or sitting down for quiet meditation? For those of us whose allostatic load is running high, until we’ve discharged some of our stress energy, sitting and meditating, or stretching our hamstrings for five excruciating minutes is going to be pretty hard. Remember, your nervous system thinks it is under threat, so how is it going to just sit down and relax? A little movement first will go a long way. For those of us who aren’t able to do a lot of movement, a little chair dancing, balancing a ball on a book, or even just laughing with a friend over Facetime can be super helpful to help reset our nervous system.

One of the biggest lessons of this challenging year has been to learn to balance my allostatic load. I couldn’t control the pandemic, my financial situation, other people’s behavior, the elections, or the way my nervous system responded to any of it. What I could do was adjust my training to support, rather than stress, my nervous system.

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