I once lived and worked and trained to be a therapist at a residential treatment facility located on a farm out in the country in Connecticut. In fact, it was called The Country Place and the most exciting thing to happen all year in the town of Litchfield (Population: 8000) where it was located, was the spring blooming over at White Flower Farm. After hanging out in the country for several months, I was assigned the task of taking one of our celebrity clients into New York City to attend to some personal business that would allow him to continue to pay the $13,000 a month it cost to be treated with “milieu therapy.” What I most remember about that trip was how overwhelmed I was by the “energy” of Manhattan. After living those many months in the bucolic tranquility of upstate Connecticut, the cars and noise and dirt and speed of a big city was something I had to physically steel myself against in order to function. It was not a pleasant experience – it all seemed threatening and overwhelming. It was unmistakably clear to me in that moment, that living in such an environment took a toll on the human body.
Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University, is perhaps the country’s leading researcher on the impact of stress on brain plasticity and neural development. (Reading Bruce’s book, The End of Stress as We Know It, significantly influenced my recent move up to Whidbey Island!) Bruce distinguishes between two types of stress: good stress and bad stress. Good stress he calls allostasis – the healthy capacity to sustain stability in the face of changing life circumstances. Bad stress Bruce calls allostatic load – it’s what happens when we can no longer adapt well to the changes that life requires of us. Pat Ogden, the originator of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, provides us with a helpful visual for allostasis. She refers to it as our “window of tolerance.” So long as we’re within the window opening, stress is able to serve a motivating, protective function. Once we venture into the area below the window – into hypo-arousal, or above the window – into hyper-arousal, stress begins to cause damage. The challenge for many of us, is first and foremost to recognize for ourselves when we’ve exceeded healthy levels in one direction or another. If we aren’t aware of it for ourselves, it’s unlikely that we’ll be easily able to help our kids with effectively managing stress levels.
I often remark to friends that I would not want to be a kid growing up today. Just the amount of energy and information they are required to process in the course of a day, in my estimation, often turns allostasis into excessive allostatic load. When it does, kids just can’t deal. And there are more ways for allostasis to go bad than we realize. Scroll down this link page and take a look: Allostatic Load. Allostasis is constantly moving between protection and damage in the human body, and many problems result from excessive load – those times when stress moves us outside the arousal window up or down, to the damage side of the ledger. Some show up immediately – kids get sick or become easily upset emotionally. Some may not show up for a long time – as later elevated glucose and cortisol levels and bone mineral loss and excess abdominal fat.
Since I’ve learned about allostasis and allostatic load and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and its role in releasing adrenaline and cortisol and other glucocorticoids, it has become increasingly easy to recognize and pay attention to how the release of these chemicals feels in my body. For example, when something as simple as a nasty email arrives, I can feel my stress levels rising as I read it. As a result, I elect to do things that serve to reduce their levels as soon as possible. Under excessive stress loads our brain is not “pro-relationship.” It loses its “reflective function,” along with other “executive” capacities – this can result in “flame wars” which erupt frequently on the Internet. Unless someone really understands what’s going on with us in these circumstances, and they have effective skills for calming and soothing, they can’t help much. They may, in fact, act more as a distractive hindrance to being able to restore allostasis. So, we’re often left to our own devices, which, it turns out continue to be ongoing experiments in what really works to make us truly feel better. If it’s not one thing, it’s another – such is the nature of stress-reduction experimentation. One size does not fit all. Each of us has to find our own healthy ways of getting back inside the window. Often for ME these days, it’s being out in the country, Clearing Wood and Drinking Water.