Allostatic load is “the wear and tear that results from chronic overactivity or underactivity of allostatic systems.” Hypnotherapy is an effective treatment for the conditions that result.
We know that the body is able to deal with stress by responding to threat or challenge with heightened cortisol levels, and then to gradually dissipate the excess cortisol as the challenge diminishes. We know, too, that the body’s ability to deal with stress and danger is limited, that it reaches exhaustion at some point and begins to shut down. In integrative medicine it might be called adrenal fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, or fibromyalgia.
Allostatic Load: Too Much Stress
The first type of allostatic load is simply too much “stress” in the form of repeated events that cause repeated elevations of stress mediators over long periods of time with insufficient relief. For example, the amount and frequency of economic hardship predicts decline of physical and mental functioning as well as increased mortality (Lynch, et al, 1997). We have written about this condition before in relation to femicide, using the terminology of insidious trauma (Zimberoff & Hartman, 1998): insidious traumas are characterized by repetitive and cumulative experiences of oppression, violence, racism, genocide, or femicide. They present an assault on every level of security a person has: physical, psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual.
Yet not all types of allostatic load deal with chronic stress, it can also be dealing with the inability to turn on the antidote to stress, that is to turn off the stress reaction. This leads to inability to relax or to allow the vulnerability of an intimate relationship.
Allostatic Load: Failure to Habituate
This second type of allostatic load involves a failure to habituate or adapt to the same repeated stressor. This leads to the over-exposure to stress mediators because of the failure of the body to dampen or eliminate the hormonal stress response to a repeated event. An example of this is the finding that, while most individuals habituate their cortisol response to repeated public speaking so that it becomes less stressful over time, a significant minority of individuals fail to habituate and continue to show elevated cortisol response no matter how often they speak in public (Kirschbaum et al, 1995).
Another example of this is blood pressure elevation in work-related stress which turn down over time for most people; the longer they are in the job the less job stress they experience. However, job-related high blood pressure is very slow to decrease in some individuals with a family history of hypertension (Gerin & Pickering, 1995).
Hypnotherapy is a valuable tool to use in helping people to gain clarity about why they react to certain situations as stressful, which translates into more conscious choice about how to deal with those situations. Hypnotherapy also provides direct access to the unconscious mind’s regulation of the nervous system and the endocrine system.
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Gerin, W., & T. G. Pickering. (1995). Association between delayed recovery of blood pressure after acute mental stress and parental history of hypertension. Journal of Hypertension, 13, 603-610.
Kirschbaum, C., J. C. Prussner, A. A. Stone, I. Federenko, J. Gaab, D. Lintz, N. Schommer, and D. H. Hellhammer. (1995). Persistent High Cortisol Responses to Repeated Psychological Stress in a Subpopulation of Healthy Men. Psychosomatic Medicine, 57: 468-474.
Lynch, J. W., G. A. Kaplan, and S. J. Shema. (1997). Cumulative impact of sustained economic hardship on physical, cognitive, psychological, and social functioning. New England Journal of Medicine, 337, 1889-1895.
McEwen, B. S. (1998). Protective and Damaging Effects of Stress Mediators. New England Journal of Medicine, 338, 171-179.
Zimberoff, D., & D. Hartman. (1998). Insidious trauma caused by prenatal gender prejudice. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, 13(1), 45-51.