Trauma Training Tip
Allostasis is a term from Western neurophysiology that describes the process of how we achieve stability by distributing the impact of stress across various body-systems. Acupuncturists know this well – when we offer constitutional support, all aspects of a person’s capacity to manage their life are supported.
Allostasis is what helps us survive, learn from and find stability after stressful experiences. For example, touching a hot stove will signal a rise in adrenaline, alerting our flight response to quickly remove our hand. Adrenalin also enhances our memory to help us avoid touching hot stoves in the future, and causes immune cells and fluids to come to our finger to promote healing. Multiple body systems are alerted and work together to support our learning and healing.
This engagement of multiple systems helps us survive and adapt to life challenges. When these adaptive systems are turned on and off efficiently, infrequently, and within our capacity to manage them without overwhelm, we cope with the challenges that we might not otherwise survive.
However, chronic, repetitive or overwhelming, acute stress can exceed our allostatic capacity. What might be a tolerable stress for someone else, like sustaining a small burn while cooking dinner, may cause our system to become hyper-aroused, causing a flare-up of a chronic pain pattern, auto-immune or digestive disorder.
We are carrying an allostatic load, or a tax on each of the body systems that spent all the energy they had, to help us return to stability. This multi-system impact is the basis for understanding the complex, multi-symptom illnesses associated with traumatic stress. Sustained high allostatic loads cause significant, system-wide changes in our physiology, with considerable impact on both our morbidity and mortality.
Alaine’s Two Cents
The winter is a great time of year to build capacity for allostasis with “long winter’s naps”, meditation or other mindfulness practices, modest exercise, warm, nourishing soups and stews – and regular acupuncture treatment! Supporting the Water Element in the winter will build whole body resilience and capacity for allostasis for the whole year
Check This Out
James Colbert has a series of videos on Youtube exploring ways to improve our allostatic capacity.
This one, Allostasis and the Autonomic Nervous System is a great introduction to the impact of stress and the concept of allostasis and allostatic load.
Where is your clinical curiosity carrying you?
Send me a question or two and I will explore them with readers in this corner next month.
Q. I hear you talking about coherence often. What signs should I look for to tell me I’m on the right track? Is there anything in particular about the Water Element or the Winter that I could be making use of with my clients?
A. This is a great question! Cultivating our ability to recognize our patient’s movement to or from greater coherence is so very important!
All of our organs have their own vibration and influence our body in their own unique way. However, the heart’s vibration has the biggest impact on all the other organs — which is why we call it the Supreme Controller. One of the Heart’s many jobs is to carry the impulse of alarm to the kingdom of the body when the Kidney signals life threat. This message is transmitted in the blood, via the pulse and influences everything that blood touches.
A regulated, harmonious pulse is an expression of cardiac coherence. It carries the message of a successful completion of the threat response to the kingdom of the body.
Making assessments of your client’s movement towards a coherent message in their heart will help you interpret the impact of your interventions — your needles, questions, touch or presence. Moment by moment evaluations of how bright their shen is, if their qiis present in their tissues, if their body is either too braced and rigid, or too slack or flaccid, if their fu are functioning smoothly and their mind efficiently, thoughtfully and compassionately, will help you plan, adjust, and carry out your treatment. Being able to assess movement towards or away from coherence in our patients is a critical way to know the impact of our interventions on restoring balance and regulation to a survivor’s body-mind-spirit.
In the winter-time, a key factor in our capacity for cardiac coherence may be the role of fear for our clients. Living exclusively from a platform of fear risks overwhelming the heart’s capacity for coherence. We can lose our capacity for thoughtfulness in decision making, compassion in our life choices, and breadth of understanding in the issues in our social discourse.
Working with the kidney/heart axis will help restore right relationship between fear and thoughtfulness, brainstem and frontal cortex, deep introspection and dynamic and engaging relationships.