Let’s face it, life these days can be stressful! There are more stressors in our lives than ever before. External stressors from work, finances, and family life. Physical stressors such as alcoholism, drug use, over exercising. Common emotional stressors including anxiety, depression. And let’s not forget the constant flow of information available to us via social media, radio, TV, emails… the list is endless.
These stressors are constantly challenging the equilibrium of our complex homeostatic environment. Originating from the Greek word “steady”, homeostasis is the maintenance of vital bodily processes that are necessary for survival. This includes balancing bodily functions such as temperature, water balance and blood sugar levels as well as oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to name a few. Life itself exists through maintaining a relatively stable and constant homeostatic state. Sounds important right? So let’s explore this a little further.
Let’s use temperature as an example. The normal temperature of the human body is around 37.5 degrees. When the body exceeds this average value the body responds appropriately by sweating and as the moisture evaporates on the skin this creates a cooling effect. On the contrary, when your body is in a cold environment sweating is minimized, blood circulating to the skin is reduced and the shivering reflex may be triggered, expending energy and creating warmth. Changes to normal body temperature triggers an autonomic counteracting and negative reaction in order to maintain homeostasis. A negative response isn’t by any means a bad thing. In fact, we should be thanking our bodies for its detective-like abilities to seek out and counteract imbalances.
To highlight the importance of maintaining homeostasis for optimal health and well-being, we can use a car and its driver as an example.
When driving, the driver never keeps the wheel in one fixed position. The driver constantly oscillates, moving slightly to the left and slightly to the right to keep the car on track. Every now and then the car will hit a road bump causing the car to steer in the wrong direction, triggering a negative feedback response. If the car is in good nick or has a balanced homeostatic environment, this is no problem for the driver and the driver appropriately weaves back to the right side of the road getting back on track. Phew!
Hitting a road bump or experiencing imbalances to our homeostatic environment is normal as is the constant ebbing and flowing above or below our equilibrium which is essential to survival. However, chronic stress from internal or external stressors can impair our ability to maintain homeostasis causing an overactive or underactive threat response.
If the car’s tyre is running a little flat and hits a road bump, the driver may attempt to counteract this by swerving to the right, however the driver swerves too hard to the left, and then to then too hard right, swerving repeatedly skidding further and further off track, an overactive response. Or the car not only has a flat tyre but is beginning to run out of fuel to steer the car back in the correct direction and so the car slowly drifts further off track, an under-active response.
The same can occur when our bodies are under chronic or acute stress, or our tyres are a bit flat and our fuel is running low. Our body’s ability to counteract natural oscillations in our homeostatic environment deteriorates as stress can impair our physiological bodily processes. This can lead to immune suppression and sickness, digestive disorders, sleep disturbances, chronic injuries and niggly pain that never seems to go away! Sound familiar?
It’s important to have strategies in place to help to manage chronic and/or acute stress to keep our ‘’engines’’ responding appropriately, so we can get back on track in a timely fashion. So what can we do when life gets stressful??! Keep an eye out for a future blog post on a simple and effective way to help combat the effects of daily stress and to maintain homeostasis… its easy and you do it every day without realizing!
Livvy Wilson is a Sports Lab Physiotherapist. She is a talented clinician as well a skilled sprinter. Livvy takes a well-rounded approach to her physio sessions and focuses in on all the important details.