Allostasis is the process of achieving stability, or homeostasis, through physiological or behavioural change. In a constantly changing world the organism must be capable of adapting constantly to changing conditions. The Greek work ‘Allo’ means ‘variable’, so Allostasis is the ability to maintain stability through being variable. It is being flexible and responsive in the face of change and challenge. In allostasis the organism is actively adjusting to both predictable and unpredictable events.
We might use the analogy of riding a bike to understand this better. When riding a bike, we are constantly (particularly when first learning) monitoring changes and our general state of stability. When we notice something changing that alters our stability, we seek to modify our behaviour (how we are riding the bike) to correct this.
The same principle holds for any activity we are engaged in. We notice and track how we are doing and then, when we notice we are ‘off balance’, respond as effectively as we can retrieve homeostasis. In daily life this might be simple things like: Becoming aware that we are tired and taking a nap; feeling hungry and getting something to eat; ringing a friend to talk when we are struggling with something.
Dan Siegel refers to this process as ‘monitor and modify’ in relation to our internal condition or state. When we are upset, angry, sad etc. the first thing we need to do is notice this by bringing awareness to the experience. We tune into the experience by stepping back and noticing what thoughts are arising, opening to the sensations in the body, and exploring how the emotion feels. Acknowledging and investigating the experience in this way naturally changes the pattern slightly because ‘when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change’. We can then go a step further by ‘modifying’: taking some wise action to make ourselves feel better: Going for a walk, taking a break, taking a few deep breaths, reading a book, or calling to mind a time when you felt happy. These ‘interventions’ create changes in the pattern which we can track, noticing how our state shifts as we take action and monitoring the change.
On a more macro level we can notice when we have lost stability in our life direction – when we feel unbalanced, or something is ‘off’. This can happen when we are not living in line with our values and is a signal that we need to make modifications. We may notice that we set sail for New York, but now sometime later are heading for France. Through monitoring and noticing this we then have the choice to adapt and change our course and so recover an existential sense of homeostasis.