When it comes to your wellbeing, stress often plays a silent yet significant role throughout your body. If you’re burning yourself out, here’s what’s going on.
Stress is a good thing. It’s actually what allows our bodies to adapt and survive. But it’s supposed to be acute.
It’s meant to be short-lived as we recover from the stressor and get back to baseline.
But when we are exposed to repeated stressors again and again, that’s when our acute stress response becomes maladaptive and our bodies lose homeostasis. We don’t make it back to baseline, and therefore, our bodies lose the ability to function how they were designed.
Despite our body’s incredible ability to productively respond to acute stressors, this is when the negative effects of stress can accumulate over time, also known as allostatic load.
What exactly is allostatic load?
Think of allostatic load as the cumulative wear and tear we put on our bodies when we are exposed to repeated stress over and over again. Instead of stressors being acute, they become chronic.
Our normal bodily responses that are designed to get us out of acutely stressful situations don’t get turned off as they should. Instead, these bodily responses are elicited too frequently, creating a big, hot, stressful mess.
You’ve reached your allostatic load.
But sometimes life gets crazy where we experience stressful seasons and reach our body’s stress threshold. That’s OK, because sometimes that happens. And if we can become aware, catch it and learn to recover, we will know how to take better care of ourselves.
But when we don’t, it’s the long-term exposure to allostatic load that leads to harm.
Now, it’s important to know that stressors can be either “good” or “bad”, especially when you categorize them as productive or unproductive stressors.
A new job, getting the flu, arguing with your partner, planning a wedding, studying for finals, not getting enough sleep, buying your first house, traveling, injury, caring for a loved one, high intensity physical activity, running late for work.
The list goes on and on.
Now pretend you are sitting with a big water bucket in your lap. In your right hand is a hose. Every time you are exposed to a stressor, you squirt the hose into your bucket, and you keep squirting with each stressor.
Every time you recover from a stressor with self care – whatever that looks like for you given the stressor – you get to dump a bit of water out of your bucket. If your squirts are more than your dumps, you will eventually fill up your allostatic load bucket all the way to the top and reach your stress threshold.
This is when you reach burn out, have an emotional breakdown, and experience physical symptoms you didn’t have before. As you can see, it’s never a single stressor that leads to burn out.
It’s the repeated exposure without giving yourself a mental break that does.
In order for our bodies to function optimally – both physically and mentally – we have to make sure our squirts are counteracted with dumps. The important takeaway here is that everybody has a different bucket size.
In other words, we all have a different stress capacity based on genetic and environmental factors that allows us to perceive stress differently. We have no idea everything that has previously or is currently going on in a person’s life. Lack of sleep alone is a huge stressor which makes coping with other stressors in life very difficult.
One person might be able to cope with an enormous amount of pressure in a healthy way, while another person may have an emotional breakdown. While we can compare our stressors and our ability to cope with stress to other people all day long, that’s simply not helpful.
What is helpful is to own your story, cultivate awareness around the size of your metaphorical bucket, know when you’ve reached the top, and learn how to dump the water out.
It’s a process, and we are all continually learning more about ourselves. And as our seasons of life change, we will learn new things and relearn old things about ourselves. Remember, we never actually arrive, and life will continually present challenges.
We’re all just learning and growing, together.
Adapted from the original article.
Robyn Nohling, FNP-BC, RD is a Registered Dietitian and Family Nurse Practitioner who believes that eating cupcakes and kale are both equally healthy to the body and mind. With a passion for women’s hormonal health and nutrition, Robyn cuts through the irrational noise of diet fads and unrealistic beauty expectations to help others find joy in food as it’s meant to be celebrated. Learn more about Robyn at The Real Life RD.