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Experiencing ‘Allostatic Load’ During COVID-19

My research on the COVID-19 labor market landed me on a fascinating scientific insight that immediately caught my attention and put a name to a phenomenon that scientists are documenting during C-19: allostatic load. Have you heard of it?

Since winter 2020, we have lived through an extended period of time during which higher education has been turned on its head. Our daily routines are upended. Our socializing is limited. We deal with uncertainties daily. And the near future suggests more of the same.

What is this doing to our brains? Neuroscientists point to a phenomenon called allostatic load, which reflects what happens as a result of chronic and cumulative stress. During normal times, the brain has the incredible capacity to process stress through adaptation. Indeed, the brain is the key organ that orchestrates how humans cope with stressful experiences. In the short-term, a healthy person can adapt to stressors through a process called allostasis. But when stress extends for a long period of time, coupled with a high degree of uncertainty about daily living, the brain may not adapt fully. This is called allostatic load (or overload).

Think of how many people might be experiencing allostatic load due to the rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has caused a global pandemic of a new disease called COVID-19, a persistent life-threatening stressor.

Anyone teaching or studying at a university today is a candidate. We are experiencing a stressful situation, on and off campus, which taxes our coping skills and manifests in wear and tear on the body. Is your brain having a tough time balancing mind and body? Do you feel psychological or physiological distress? Are you less resilient than usual? Are you running out of coping skills? If so, you are not alone.

The scientific concept of allostatic load is thanks in large measure to renowned neuro endocrinologist, Bruce McEwen. Over a 50-year career, he contributed to the research on neuroscience through the publication of over 1,000 scientific papers, service on the editorial boards of 15 journals, and as President of the Society for Neuroscience and International Society for Neuroendocrinology from his lab at Rockefeller University in New York City.

McEwen’s fundamental discovery of the health impacts of stress as allostatic load—the cumulative wear and tear that stress adaptation places on the brain and body—revolutionized the understanding of the environment-brain-body interactions. His research demonstrated how chronic stress on the brain can “foster a proliferation of recursive neural, physiological behavioral, cognitive, and emotional changes that increase vulnerability to ill health and disease.” (McEwen, 1998).

Curious to know what McEwen was thinking during our current situation, I found out that he died on Jan. 2, 2020, just at the start of COVID-19. In his absence, we can draw from his research to consider ways to deal with today’s unprecedented acute stressors. Two keys for replenishment are regular aerobic exercise and social interaction/support from friends, family, colleagues and community. Clinical evidence indicates that, with attention and care, the neuroplasticity of the brain can successfully be remodeled to resume healthy adaptive allostasis.

My brain was relieved to discover the allostatic load concept to help make sense of what people might be going through during these crazy times. As we start a new term, remember that we are in this together. Go easy on yourself and others. This too shall pass, and we will return to a healthy state of homeostasis.


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