September: Allostasis

The word of the month for September is “allostasis.” A simple definition for allostasis is “achieving stability through change.”

Not by resisting change, and not in spite of change.

Last week, Brad Stulberg published an opinion piece in the New York Times called “Stop Resisting Change.” Stulberg explains that in the 1980s, neuroscientist Peter Sterling and biologist Joseph Eyer suggested that after experiencing change/disorder/disruption, healthy baselines do not necessarily return to their original starting points but instead may end up somewhere new:

The brain is at its best when it is constantly rewiring itself and making new connections — what we experience as a thriving and stable consciousness is actually a process of ongoing change. Overcoming pain, be it physical or psychological, is not about resistance (which often worsens the experience) or trying to get back to where you were before a distressing event or situation. It’s about balancing acceptance with problem-solving and moving forward to a new normal.

In other words, dealing with change is itself a growth process, and what we grow into is not the same as what we were before.

Of course (and maybe especially now), we all know how it feels to be confronted with one change after another — this increased “allostatic load” can be incredibly stressful, physically and emotionally. Stulberg does not dismiss these stressors but instead recommends reconsidering and reframing around them, as possible:

When I catch myself resisting or shutting down in response to change, in my head I say some version of the following: This is what is happening right now. I’m doing the best that I can. What, if any, skillful actions can I take?

I find this approach to be very similar to the curiosity and open-mindedness that many skilled mediators and negotiators bring to disputes and decisions. Avoiding quick judgments, asking questions to unearth more information, tolerating uncertainty, listening with the intent to understand–these could be thought of as ways of moving more allostatically through conflict.


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