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The allostatic load is the physical and emotional cost of dealing with stressful circumstances over lengthy periods of time. Sometimes this term is defined as synonymous with stress, but it is really the nature of the body’s stress response and how it is carried and processed that determines the load. It’s been argued that heavier loads risk the development of chronic diseases. Moreover, not just bio- or neurochemical responses, but also unhelpful behavior, difficult childhood experiences, and the presence of anxiety or mood disorders increase this chronic stress burden. There are some suggested ways to measure the weight of an allostatic load and to reduce its impact.
Individuals handle stress in different ways, but periods of high stress are linked to the production of chemicals like cortisol and catecholamines, such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine. In the short term, higher amounts of these chemicals help people cope with stress. On the other hand, chronic stress may lead to overproduction of these chemicals, and faulty mechanisms in turning off the chemical response. Sometimes the body also produces cortisol and catecholamines in situations that wouldn’t ordinarily be perceived as stressful.
These additional responses cease to be helpful, and, instead, become increasingly physically harmful. They begin to cause elevated risk for cardiac disease, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Additionally, a chronically high allostatic load means people are more likely to choose coping behaviors that raise disease risk, like smoking, drinking and drug use. Alternately, people may fail to exercise or they overeat.
Not all people handle stress the same way, and some seem to be able to deal with much more of it while still making good choices and taking care of themselves. An allostatic load in these patients may be lower. In contrast, certain individuals seemed primed to carry a heavier load. Higher stress response levels often occur in those who were abused and neglected as children, and in people with mood and anxiety disorders. These scenarios then translate to an elevated risk for serious, chronic diseases.
There are ways to measure an allostatic load. Some practitioners suggest using stress scales, but this may not be particularly effective. A scale may rate a person’s current experience of stress, but doesn’t speak to the way he processes it over time. Better measures evaluate levels of catecholamines and cortisol, and could even test for conditions like obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol levels, and cardiac disease.
Additionally, psychotherapeutic care determines what types of behaviors a person has developed to cope with high stress. A thorough client history can evaluate how often clients have perceived themselves to be under stress. Psychotherapy also diagnoses psychiatric disorders and can indentify negative childhood experiences that may correspond to a higher allostatic load. Moreover, therapeutic work in the areas of stress reduction and management may change physiological coping mechanisms over time, thus reducing the risk of developing certain chronic illnesses.