We seek balance, keeping our systems flowing in an optimal range. Science theorizes the driving force for balance is the foundation of motivation. Internal biological forces react to change, initiating both internal processes (heart rate, hormone release, body temperature), and external behaviors that can bring the organism back into a stable state. The psychology concept of allostasis adds to our understanding of anxiety and how our system defends against stress.
Physiological homeostasis “means having an ideal body temperature, heart rate, glucose level, and so on” (Sapolski 2018). T. Franklin Murphy notes that these physiological states are intimately connected to psychological states. he wrote, “physiological and psychological homeostasis are not independent states. They are intricately weaved together. Our psychological states impact our physiological balance. Our physiological states impact our psychological balance” (2021).
We measure stable states in both physiological and psychological means. Extreme feeling states shake physiological states. Physiological states activate psychological states. We intimately weave together stable states, receiving and providing feedback in a complex process of optimizing existence.
Broaden and build theory suggests that when in more stable states (positive emotional states), we allocate resources to growth oriented activities. Murphy explains “positive affect, according to science, promotes approach behaviors that continue action, prompting adaptive engagement with surrounding environments” (2020).
Homeostasis vs. Allostasis
Homeostasis theories suggest that changes initiate action. When sensory information disrupts an organism, knocking processes out of optimal range functioning, the change sets off an alarm that triggers a corrective response.
Homeostasis is a model of physiological regulation that theorizes the organism’s main objective is to “preserve relatively constant conditions in the internal body environment” (James, 2020). Purportedly, our motivations rally around keeping internal processes within a narrow range around a set point.
Maintaining homeostasis involves many processes, both psychologically and physiologically. Psychologist and psychiatrist design therapy and treatment to get offending values (pain, psychic disturbances) back to the set point.
In 1988, Peter Sterling and Joseph Ayer presented a new theory. They introduced a concept of stability through change—or allostasis. Rather than waiting for a disrupting event, the organism engages in prediction. Sterling explains, “a more efficient strategy is for the brain to monitor many parameters and use its stored knowledge to predict what values will be needed; then it sets promptly controlling the neuroendocrine and autonomic systems. This strategy of predictive regulation has been termed allostasis, meaning ‘stability through change’” (2014).
According to homeostasis, organisms wait for internal changes to react, while allostasis suggests that the organisms predict demands, adjust in preparation, firing neurons in anticipation of an incoming event.
How is Allostasis Different?
Allostasis permits adjustment of the stable state to predicted demands “based on memory and context” (2016). We process predictable environments as appropriate. Therefore, they do not destabilize our emotions. De Ridder and colleagues explain that “the predictive component of allostasis is the fundamental difference between it and homeostasis, which is only responsive (2016).
Allostasis expands the homeostatic concept, freeing some parameters from a defined set point. Allostasis allows for physiologically fluctuating parameters. Gary James of Birmingham University explains, “the idea is that levels in these parameters fluctuate to adapt the individual to ever-changing circumstances such that there is a connection between external conditions and the body’s ability to meet the demands imposed by them…” (2020).
“Seen in the broader context of the history of life, allostasis is the integrated biobehavioral process that describes the interactive adaptive journey of the body through life.”Gary B. James
We don’t always function best at a certain set point. Some situations require heightened arousal and attention. We predict the functional needs, adjust our physiological states, and adapt to the present circumstances. Homeostasis theories suggest we are constantly motivated to reduce the arousal in order to return to the set point.
Hans Selye believed that “stress is the spice of life,” arising from both pleasant and unpleasant activities. Our goal, then, is not freedom from all stress, but rather to keep stress in manageable portions (Krech, 2012, Kindle location 759).
Advantages of Allostasis
The predictive and preparatory elements of allostasis provide several advantages over previously theorized reactive responses.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, wrote “your brain issues predictions and checks them against the sense data coming from the world and your body. What happens next still astounds me, even as a neuroscientist. If your brain has predicted well, then your neurons are already firing in a pattern that matches the incoming sense data. That means this sense data itself has no further use beyond confirming your brain’s predictions” (2020, Kindle location 757).
The proposed advantages of allostatic mechanisms include:
- Errors are reduced in magnitude and frequency
- Budgeting reduces our response capacity
- Resources shared between multiple systems
- Errors are remembered and used to reduce future prediction errors (De Ridder et al., 2016).
When the body is challenged by threatening events or challenges, it reacts physiologically through the production of mediators that adaptively alter the bodies functioning (heart rate, metabolism, etc.…). The accumulated effect of stressors on the individual, called the allostatic load, is significantly increased.
“The Neurotransmitters and hormones are usually released during a discrete period of time and then shut off,” explains Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientists that specialized in stress research. “When the shut off or removal of the mediator doesn’t not occur, effects of the mediators on target cells are prolonged, leading to other consequences that may include receptor desensitization and tissue damage. This process has been named ‘allostatic load” (2004).
The allostatic load refers to the cost of adaptation.
Allostasis and Emotion
A focal point of my research is emotion. Homeostasis and allostasis play foundational roles in the construction of emotion. The final experience of emotion is an integration of the feeling affects of shifting body states and a labeling of the sensations, to give them meaning. As I have noted over the years, the meaning we give to feeling significantly impacts the experience.
Barrett taught that, “your pumping heart, your expanding lungs, and your changing temperature and metabolism and sensory input to your brain that is noisy and ambiguous” (2017, p. 66). Our brain organizes the bodily sensations, drawing from past experiences, adopted cultural concepts; direct encounters and social learning feed our brains with fodder to give meaning to present sensations. This entire process is automatic and and invisible (p.26).
“And so, Trapped within the skull, with only past experiences as a guide, your brain makes predictions.“Lisa Feldman Barrett
We predict what the sensations mean in the current context. We feel sad because our concept of sadness fits the bodily sensations surging through our body and the context of the feeling is centered around a recent loss.
The construction of emotion may puncture the shield of consciousness, where we can further the narrative behind the feeling. Murphy wrote, “high emotional granularity or differentiation is an effective regulation strategy. Emotional differentiation creates a narrative that manages, calms and soothes arousal” (2021).
The Physiology of Homeostasis and Allostasis
Our bodies maintain balance in our internal environment, keeping physiological variables such as heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and blood sugar within a certain narrow range. These processes are vital for life. Basically, any changes in these values ring an alarm through feedback mechanisms. We must react to the call.
The release of different agents within our bodies creates felt bodily changes. Hormones surge through our blood, stimulating organs, and preparing muscles to respond to threats in the system. Consequently, these changes motivate action. Through action, we may extinguish the threat and our body’s alarm system shuts off, returning to a comfortable set point.
One of the agents involved in allostasis is oxytocin. “It has been shown that oxytocin maintains homeostasis, shifts the set point for adaptation to a changing environment (allostasis) and contributes to recovery from the shifted set point by including active coping responses to stressful stimuli (resilience)” (Takayanagi & Onaka, 2021).
A Few Final Words on Allostasis
The research on allostasis strongly supports this thesis. We can gain deeper understanding of our complex emotional lives through the lens of allostatic and homeostatic drives. Generally, biological explanations provide a calming blanket when emotions invade and overwhelm. Instead of being sucked into a black hole of chaotic emotions, we may step back and examine the wave of experience with awe and wonder.
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Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition
De Ridder, D., Manning, P., Leong, S., Ross, S., & Vanneste, S. (2016). Allostasis in health and food addiction. Scientific Reports, 6(1), 1-15.
James, G. (2020). Allostasis and Adaptation: Biocultural Processes Integrating Lifestyle, Life History, and Blood Pressure Variation. American Anthropologist, 122(1), 51-64.
Krech, Gregg (2012). The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology. ToDo Institute Books; 1st edition
McEwen, B. (2004). Allostasis, Allostatic Load, and the Aging Nervous System: Role of Excitatory Amino Acids and Excitotoxicity. Neurochemical Research, 25(10), 1219-1231.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021) Homeostasis. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-16-2021. Accessed 3-9-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2020). Broaden and Build Theory. Flourishing Life Society. Published 9-4-2020. Accessed 3-9-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021) Emotion Differentiation. Flourishing Life Society. Published 9-1-2021. Accessed 3-9-2022.
Sapolski, R.M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Sterling, P., Eyer, J. (1988) Allostasis: A New Paradigm to Explain Arousal Pathology. In editor S. Fisher and J. reason. Handbook of Life Stress, Cognition and Health.
Sterling, P. (2014). Homeostasis vs Allostasis. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(10), 1192-1193.
Takayanagi, Y., & Onaka, T. (2021). Roles of Oxytocin in Stress Responses, Allostasis and Resilience. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 23(1),