How An Allostatic Approach Can Help You Find Stability In A Crazy World

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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that you can’t step into the same river twice: you aren’t the same person at each visit, and the water is ever flowing. It is a powerful way to represent the reality of impermanence: everything is always changing, including us.

Even the most average existence contains highs, lows, and everything in between. Yet so many people struggle with change, and the inherent challenges it presents.

No doubt, change can, and often does, hurt. But with the right mind-set, it can also be a force for growth. A big part of sustaining health and performance—you could argue the biggest part—is the ability to navigate challenge and change.

This has always been the case, but it feels even more-so now.

The world today is changing faster than ever, driven by new technologies and their wide-ranging effects on what seems like nearly every corner of of our lives. Add to this social, cultural, and political turmoil and, in simple terms, it feels harder than ever to keep our sanity in a batshit crazy world, let alone show up at our bests and pursue excellence.

A concept and outlook called allostasis can help.

Developed in the late 1980s by a neuroscientist, Peter Sterling, and a biologist, Joseph Eyer, allostasis is based on the idea that rather than being rigid, our healthy baseline is a moving target. Allostasis runs counter to a more widespread but older and outdated model for change, homeostasis.

Essentially, homeostasis says healthy systems return to the same starting point following a change: X to Y to X. By contrast, in allostasis, healthy systems also crave stability after a change, but the baseline of that stability is almost always somewhere new: X to Y to Z.

It’s parallel to a framing first conceived by a Richard Rohr: we don’t go from order, disorder, back to order. We go from order, disorder, to reorder. It is imperative that we learn how to navigate this cycle with grace and grit.

Allostasis is defined as “stability through change,” elegantly capturing the concept’s double meaning: The way to stay stable through the process of change is by changing, at least to some extent. If you want to hold your footing, you’ve got to keep moving. It’s the scientific version of adapt or die, though, as you’ll read below, it contains far more nuance.

From neuroscience to pain science and psychology, allostasis has become the predominant model for understanding change and challenge in the scientific community.

For example, 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 adaptation.

Overcoming pain, be it physical or psychological, is not about resistance (which often worsens the experience) or trying to get back to where we were before a distressing event or situation. It’s about balancing acceptance with problem-solving and moving forward to a new normal.

A healthy response to change, challenge, and disorder, whether it’s within ourselves or our environments, is one based on the allostatic process. It’s true for just about everything we can imagine.

Adopting an allostatic outlook acknowledges that the goal is not to avoid, fight, or try to control change and challenge. Nor is it to throw your hands up and go wherever the current takes you. Rather, it’s about skillfully engaging with what is in front of you, holding your ground and adapting at the same time.

It recognizes that after disorder, there is often no going back to the way things were—no one form of order, but many forms of reorder. There are going to be factors that are within our control and there are going to be factors that are outside of our control. Our job is to do everything we can to focus on the former and not waste energy on the latter.

Via this shift, we come to view change, challenge, and disorder not as something that happens to us but as something that we are working with, an ongoing dance between us and our environments.

Overwhelming science demonstrates that the more distress—what researchers call allostatic load—people experience during periods of change and challenge, the greater their chances of disease and demise. Fortunately, the same science agrees that we can also become stronger and grow from change and that much about how we navigate change is behavioral; that is, it can be developed and practiced.

Allostasis is probably the unsung hero of my latest book, Master of Change. When I first had the idea for the book in 2020, it was largely in response to what was happening with COVID-19. I had no clue that the craziness wouldn’t end, or at least diminish, with the easing of the pandemic. But nowadays, I think about allostasis even more frequently than I did then.

How do we maintain our ground, skill, and humanity in a world where artificial intelligence is becoming more universal? What does it mean to use the internet well when it’s increasingly full of crap? What does it mean to be a nuanced thinker when everyone seems driven to extremes? How can we play the long-game when there is a strong pull to be obsessed with short-term outcomes?

I’ve come to answer all these questions with some version of an allostatic outlook.

Since the book came out, here are some of the ideas and tools that are part of an allostatic outlook that I’ve personally found most helpful, and I’ve heard from countless readers the same:

Embrace tragic optimism: Tragic optimism is a mindset that maintains hope and finds meaning despite life’s inescapable pain, loss, and suffering. Research shows people who have it respond better to challenges and stress. Instead of placing toxic positivity on a pedestal or falling prey to doom loops and despair, embrace tragic optimism instead.

This means acknowledging, accepting, and expecting that life will contain hardship and hurt, and then trudging forward with a positive attitude nonetheless. Tragic optimism understands that the worst way to be happy is by trying to be happy all the time, or worse yet, assuming (and expecting) that you ought to be. It accepts the full range of human experience and emotion—that with happiness comes sadness.

Develop and commit to daily anchors: Daily anchors are the routines and rituals that keep us grounded, even, and perhaps especially, amidst chaos. Examples include a daily walk or run, morning coffee, evening candle, and so on.

Routine and rituals give us something that is predictable and in our control. They help to stabilize us so that we can meet life’s instability from a place of strength and centeredness.

Do what you can to respond not react: This is about creating space to bring your best self to challenging circumstances. When you react you panic, pummel ahead, and often regret it. When you respond you pause, process, plan, and only then proceed—and are generally proud of yourself for it.

Many philosophers have said that in between stimulus and action there is a space, and within that space is our freedom to choose to our response. Whenever a challenge arises, I do everything I can to ask myself how I can respond not react. Even just asking the question creates space and opens the door to a more thoughtful response.

Identify with consistency: Consistency means showing up day in and day out. It is a commitment to stay in the game, even when it’s hard. When you identify with consistency, when it is simply something you do, when it becomes part of who you are, you gain strength and fortitude.

Practice rugged flexibility: Rugged flexibility combines being durable, tough, and determined with being soft, supple, and adaptable. It’s about knowing your core values, the hills that you’ll die on, and then pushing yourself to adapt, evolve, and grow at the same time.

When we practice rugged flexibility we ask ourselves what isn’t going to change, and then push ourselves to be fluid on nearly everything else. You could say that being rugged and flexible is key to navigating cycles of order, disorder, and reorder.

To give ourselves the best chance of thriving—and not just surviving—over the long haul, we need to transform our relationship with change, leaving behind rigidity and resistance in favor of a new nimbleness, a means of viewing more of what life throws at us as something to participate in, rather than fight. We are always shaping and being shaped by change and challenge, often at the very same time.

Brad

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