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Humanitarian work can change people over time, both in beneficial and not so beneficial ways. Many operating in higher risk zones have experienced the thrill of the adrenaline high and the intense sense of purpose and satisfaction that it can bring. Yet that same satisfaction can make the rest of life seem too boring and unbearable. We can feel a growing restlessness or a difficulty relaxing and feeling content. The long and intense days of responding to a rapid onset disaster in a far off place can produce a tangible sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy, but then as the days and months wear on, we may find ourselves beginning to battle with chronic health issues. There are a whole range of factors that can contribute to this very mixed picture, but one of them can be tied to the concept of allostasis.
Our bodies work in a give and take kind of way. It’s brilliant when you get right down to it. But, when faced with certain demands or stresses our body adjusts for optimal efficiency – reallocating resources to help us meet the demands of the moment. Chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline pump through our body activating a system wide alert. Our heart rate increases, we breathe faster to get more oxygen, resources are directed away from our digestive system and instead to our muscles so we are ready for action, our immune system goes into hyperdrive to prepare for injury, our brain scans our environment, picking up on negative cues before we even realize it.
All of these automatic responses are amazingly protective in the short term, but in the long term they can backfire on us. The trick is, that many of us operate in contexts that keep our systems on the high end of the arc for long periods of time. It could be that there are constant stressors that come so often that my systems are never able to fully relax. Or it could be that I’ve encountered something so difficult that I’m stuck in overdrive and can’t resolve the tensions. For whatever reason it is as if our gas pedal gets stuck on high.
The very responses that help us immediately, begin to have a bad effect the longer the pedal remains stuck. That’s when the symptoms of the backfire start showing up. The symptoms may look differently for different people. Back pain, difficulty sleeping, weakened immune system, jumpiness or agitation, stomach problems, blood pressure problems, are all common symptoms that the body is perhaps stuck in a new normal that was never meant to be normal.
In a best case scenario our body soon down-regulates and reallocates the resources in a way that is sustainable for normal day to day living. Along with the ramp up system just described, we also have a ramp down system. This system helps us to relax, to bring our heart rate back down and to go back to digesting our food normally. Both the ramp up and the ramp down systems need to be in good shape for us to be healthy and to stay resilient. This whole process of change – from the immediate ramping up to the gradual ramping down - can all be summed up in the word Allostasis: achieving stability through change.
We’ll be talking much more about allostasis and its implications for humanitarian workers in the coming months. It has loads of practical applications for maintaining health and resilience, so stay in touch!
Click here to read part two http://www.headington-institute.org/blog-home/420/allostasis-and-why-it-matters-part-two
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