The Allostatic Curve

This article has been written at the request of a certain young lady who goes by the name of Tasnim. Therefore, this article is dedicated to a certain young lady who is called…Tasnim. 


Stress. That feeling. The biological push, an instinctual thing that urges us to get something done about something. Fight, flight, or freeze.

‘Stress’ is not a bad thing in and of itself. It can be an excellent motivational force, when experienced in moderation. Aside from urgent biological threats (e.g. the intense ‘stress’ we may feel when some threat of physical attack looms before us) we tend to stress about things we care about.

A drive to get things done, always towards some end goal, towards some overarching philosophy. You might experience some stress when thinking about your to-do list. “I need to get these tasks done. Send this email. Check this essay.” Why? “Because the deadlines are coming up. I don’t want to be scolded by my teacher.” Why? “Because I care about my education. It adds some meaning to my life; it is a part of me, and a part that I fear losing.” 

‘Eustress’ (‘good’ stress) is, well, good. Without it, we probably would not do much at all. We would not care about doing things. With eustress (see: the left side of the given curve – a theoretical curve that shows stress that is good; where this peaks; then, where it falls – where the stress becomes more harmful than ‘good’) we are driven to carry out the work-related tasks we need to complete [we care about doing well, about not losing our jobs, about maintaining our social reputations and our self-expectations] and we are also motivated to, for example, pray on time, feed babies on time, and to do things for the people we love.

In our heads, we think about the potential rewards of doing certain things, and about potential negative reinforcements and punishments if we fail to do them. The stress, I believe, comes mostly from the latter. And also from the internal and self-inflicted punishment that may arise, if we end up missing out on the rewards, or if we end up losing certain things – like our jobs, or our statuses, or beloved elements of our identities.

The allostatic curve is probably quite an important thing to bear in mind. It is also probably a very subjective thing: some people work better than others do when under lots of stress. What is represented by the ‘optimum point’ on one person’s curve may be different to that of another person.

And, beyond our optimum points, we can quickly descend into harmful stress: the type that may, for example, result in sleeplessness, psychosomatic pains, and more. The key difference is that eustress tends to result in action and ensuing satisfaction from this action. ‘Bad stress’ – after the optimal point – tends to result in inaction. Worrying so much, for example, that suddenly, stress ends up doing the opposite of what its ‘job’, so to speak, is to do.

Threat, stress, action, resultBut, sometimes, there are no obvious courses of action to take, against certain perceived threats. This is when stress can balloon, multiply; it has nowhere to go, unfortunately. Nowhere to go but everywhere inside of your mind. Somehow, we need to teach ourselves to mentally minimise these particular ‘threats’ – the more abstract ones.

Moreover, I do not think that stress is an inherently bad thing – again, when experienced in moderation – but I do prefer it when there is also a good helping of that other sort of motivational force. Call it passion, maybe. Stress may make us worry about letting a friend down when they have tasked us with something, because we do not want to disappoint them; we do not want to compromise the friendship in any way. But that other type [passion?] makes us joyfully run towards doing certain things, because we cannot wait to see the smile on their face when we do this thing for them. Yes, stress is about the avoidance of negative reinforcements, driven by thoughts of negativity. Passion is about positive reinforcements – about a drive towards gaining something, maybe a new lovely experience.

Doing things towards love and towards a want to be appreciated: I do not think these forces count as being ‘stress’-based ones. Also: simply enjoying the process. Stress may drive you towards completing work-based tasks and such [which is great when in moderation – if it helps you to get the required things done, on time, and if it prevents all those potential negative consequences from eventuating]. But passion will make you enjoy the process, too!

Furthermore, I came across an interesting idea [I forget where I came across it, though, as I tend to do] that general considerations concerning the allostatic curve ought to be reflected in one’s day. The calm part in the morning, some eustress – preparing you, building up, for an optimum point. This might be during midday, when we should aim to be the most productive. And then, wind down time. It is certainly a bad idea, for instance, to put pressure on oneself to experience one’s optimal performance immediately, right at the start of one’s day, or right before one intends to go to sleep…

So, the allostatic curve then. A wonderful idea, and something that is very useful to think about, especially right now, in a busy world driven, so it would seem, by freneticism and stress. The health component, and the passion one, ought to be deeply considered, too.

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

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