'Allostatic Load' Is How Unrelenting Stress Damages Your Body

I’m exhausted not because my body is working hard, but because my brain is.
Photo via Getty Images/Tetra Images

7:00 a.m.: Wake up.

7:30 a.m.: Online yoga class.

8:30 a.m.: Take dog for a hike.

10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.: Settle in for two uninterrupted, solid hours of work before a healthy lunch.

This was the schedule I envisioned for myself a month ago, when I started isolating at home. I thought about all the time I would have, the meals I would lovingly prepare, the books I would read and movies I would watch. By a month in, I thought I would have enriched myself in a thousand wonderfully understated, eminently Instagrammable ways.


Here’s what my days actually look like:

7:00 a.m: Wake up by reading Twitter, scream internally for 15 minutes.

7:30 a.m: Just kinda stare off into space for a while.

8:30 a.m: Throw on leggings, gamely allow the dog to lead me around the neighborhood.

10:00 a.m: Do I want to nap on the couch or back in bed? Trick question! I will not make it to the bed.

My days have been reduced to the bare minimum. I work in drips and chunks of time, keeping my energy up with M&Ms and frequent Youtube breaks. I scrounge together leftovers for lunch, creating what I ambitiously call Grazing Plates. In reality, it’s a pear hacked into pieces and four olives piled on a handful of dry Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I have done yoga twice, and I felt undeniably smug about it. I’m doing so much less than I’m used to, and I’m so tired.

Turns out, I’m not alone. Nancy Sin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, says that in stressful situations like this, there are physiological responses in our bodies. “Our stress hormones increase. We prepare to fight or flee,” said Sin. And as this pandemic continues and isolation drags on, “we’re having a lot of these physiological adaptations, each time we feel stressed, each time we feel worried. And over time, these repeated hits, physiologically and psychologically, can accumulate.”


That accumulation is called the allostatic load, essentially the damage on our bodies when they’re repeatedly exposed to stress. And while it feels like I’m doing nothing most days, my brain is still dealing with the anxiety and strain of this pandemic. I’m exhausted not because my body is working hard, but because my brain is.

In my regular life, I would see dozens of people a day. I commute to work, I get lunch, I meet up with friends, I go to the gym—and all of those little interactions are cues to my brain that I’m OK, and part of a larger social network. But when I’m alone, I’m more vulnerable, and my brain is working overtime trying to protect me.

As George Slavich, director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at UCLA explained, humans are like pack animals, and when we go into isolation, we get lonely.

“That’s really important in terms of the body’s assessment of risk, because being alone means you’re much more vulnerable to threats,” Slavich said. “Your brain needs to be on high alert to make sure that you quickly identify any threats in the environment, because you’re compromised.”

So my brain is working to identify those threats in the only way it can right now: by reading the news. And that takes up way more energy than I think.


“You need a lot of physical energy for your cognitive work,” said Sin. “We’re doing so much worrying and rumination…there’s a lot that’s going on that’s kind of sucking up our energy.”

Sin’s team is conducting a study, tracking how respondents are dealing with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve had more than 5000 responses so far, with people reporting sleep disturbance, anxiety, agitation, and depression.

Unfortunately, the stress of lockdowns and shelter in place orders are likely to continue for a while longer. How much longer? No one is sure, and that’s part of the problem.

“Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our experience of stress,” said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of Practice, Research, and Policy at the American Psychological Association. “Part of what we try to do to function in our society is to have some structure, some predictability. When we have those kinds of things, life feels more manageable, because you don’t have to put the energy into figuring those things out.”

So how do we all get back to those feelings of predictability? First, in true therapy speak, feel your feelings. “This is unprecedented,” Bufka said. “There’s no judgment here that you feel stressed about it, you don’t like it, [you’re] feeling angry, whatever. Acknowledging those emotions and then going past it is where we’re trying to get to.”

And the second step? Well, that’s considerably harder to do when our collective energy levels are plummeting. But exercise, eating well, and trying to keep to a regular sleep cycle will help.

“If you’re not moving your muscles, you are also probably gaining a little bit of fat around those muscles,” said Slavich. Our immune cells tend to hang out in excess belly fat, and they can increase inflammation. “It’s really inflammation that's the primary driver in feeling fatigued. Inflammation can change how we think and sleep, and make us much less interested in pleasurable activities.”

Which means, if I can pull myself off the couch to that long-abandoned yoga class, it will likely make the rest of my day easier. Of course, I’ll have to see if I can fit it into my schedule first.