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Allostatic Stress: The Reason You Feel Out of Focus



Two days ago I sat down to transcribe the interview I did for this article. Since then, I’ve done the dishes and a load of laundry, then stared blankly at my computer for almost a day, just considering my upcoming deadline. However, it is not a procrastination problem. It’s a pandemic problem. For the past two months my mind has been either all over or completely blank, with both endless exhaustion and an inability to sleep a full night.

I am not alone either. The fear of COVID-19 has brought many of us to its breaking points and taken on excessive stress that medical professionals call allostatic stress. The term refers to the amount of stress and anxiety that we as individuals can bear before we are so overwhelmed that we just look around completely.

Una McCann, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins Medicine, says it is an arousal problem. When we are in a coma, we are zero arousal and cannot do anything. If we panic, we are over excited and unable to do anything. The optimal level is somewhere in the middle.

“Think of an athlete like someone on a baseball team,”

; McCann said. “You are on the plate and the pitcher is about to throw. If they sleep, they won’t hit the ball. If they are way too scared and panicked, there is no way they can hit the ball. Somewhere in the middle is “the zone”. The zone is the perfect level of arousal, activity, and excitement. You are aware of something, you know how to do it, you are focused and yet you are not so excited that you are distractible and your body malfunctions. “

According to McCann, the allostatic load is represented by a bell diagram. On the far left is the comatose state, and on the far right is the completely overhyped state. Every new stressor that happens takes us one more step to the right, toward overstimulation, “beyond that zone level where we are all comfortable and focused, and into the anxious level,” said McCann.

Stress from all sides

Both COVID-19 and the ongoing protests for racial justice are affecting allostatic stress on a global scale. Basically we all feel it now. Perhaps you’ve seen too many messages and are emotionally drained. Perhaps you’ve been running around trying to home-school your kids while working full-time making sure all the chores are done and you’re physically exhausted. Perhaps you are constantly scared when you see masks all over the place. Or maybe you’re just social by nature and being home all the time has used up your energy. Whatever it is, we may become desperate, distracted, and tired. We lose our inner drive to accomplish things that we normally do easily.

So what can we do to get back to the optimal center point on the graph? The solution is different for everyone and their circumstances. It could be so easy for social people to reach friends and loved ones via text, phone call or video to talk about and share experiences about everything that is going on. For others, especially those who were already anxious before the pandemic started, it could mean scheduling additional telemedicine sessions with a therapist to follow a treatment plan. But unfortunately some of us don’t have the ability to do any of this.

“People who don’t have the technology or equipment can find it very difficult to reach others,” said McCann. “If you don’t have the right computer or WiFi or whatever it is, you will have great difficulty reaching those who might bring you comfort – and that’s another part of the allostatic burden that drives people the right [of the graph]. ”

Focus on the future

For people in this situation – and for everyone in general – McCann suggests focusing on productive and forward-looking activities like gardening or starting a new fitness program. These activities make you feel like you are contributing to yourself or the world and can bring you comfort and peace.

Mindfulness activities can also be helpful, such as yoga, meditation, and even just listening to music. Also, remember that meeting your friends where they are mentally can help both you and them. If someone hasn’t contacted them in a while, check them out and share something that you found helpful.

“If you know someone loves music, you can send them a link to a new album that you think is particularly good,” suggests McCann. “There is a connection between you and this person and they can hear the great music. And maybe they can share something with you. “

Make sure you listen to what your body is telling you – and know that it’s always okay to just sit and stare for a while if you have to.




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