Homeostasis can seem complicated, but really it's just a balancing act. This lesson will look at how stress can affect us and the important part it plays in maintaining homeostasis.
Meaning of Homeostasis
Yikes! Homeostasis? What does that mean? Because it sounds pretty complicated! Well, it's actually quite a simple concept once it's broken down. The not so simple part is how we maintain homeostasis. Now that's a process!
The Merriam-Webster dictionary has a few different definitions of homeostasis, but we are going to focus on the two that are straight from the medical dictionary. Let's start with the first one. Homeostasis is the maintenance of relatively stable internal physiological conditions (such as body temperature or the pH of blood) in higher animals under fluctuating environmental conditions. Hmm, okay. Kind of complicated.
The second definition of homeostasis is the process of maintaining a stable psychological state in the individual under varying psychological pressures or stable social conditions in a group under varying social, environmental, or political factors. This may be a little easier to understand, but it's still pretty complicated. Okay, the bottom line is, 'homeo' means 'same' and 'stasis' means stable.
So, in other words, our minds and bodies work best when they remain the same and stable. But how often does that really work? Probably not as often as we would like.
Effects of Stress
So, what can affect homeostasis in our mind and bodies? The answer is stress. Negative stress is something that can cause strain or tension, either physically or mentally, in our daily lives.
It's impossible to define specific negative stressors because everyone experiences things differently and responds differently to them. What causes a great deal of stress for one simply slides off another.
While one feels more emotional pressure, others might feel more of a physical strain and find themselves feeling ill during periods of chronic negative stress. Regardless of how it affects us, the overall process of homeostasis is disrupted, so we become unbalanced.
Example of Stress and Ways to Adapt
Let's take Lena, for example. Lena is a registered nurse in a busy emergency room. She deals with life and death situations regularly at work without missing a beat. She finds that if she doesn't take time out occasionally for herself by exercising and spending time with her family and friends, she is not quite as effective as she would like to be. But she thinks it's really nothing to worry about.
One day, however, she receives a phone call at work to find out that her father has had a stroke. Initially, Lena takes it in stride and tells herself 'everything will be fine.' After three months of physical therapy in a long-term care unit, Lena decides that her father will have to come and live with her and her family so she can help care for him on a daily basis.
She underestimated just how demanding this would be, and she begins to notice that she is not sleeping as well. One day at work, she unintentionally makes a critical mistake and gives a patient the wrong medication.
It becomes obvious that although Lena can manage a great deal of stress in her life, at this point, she's taken on too much. She decides she needs help to care for her father and hires an agency that provides home visits to take care of her father four times a week.
With this small amount of extra time, Lena makes self-care a priority and begins exercising regularly, adding in meditation and massages occasionally. After a short time, Lena begins to feel more like herself and finds that she responds to the stress in a more productive way. She begins to have a better relationship with her father and family and is regaining her confidence at work as well.
Another Example of Stress
Now, let's take a look at Laura. Laura is a personal trainer and a yoga instructor. She maintains a 100% organic diet and is very environmentally conscious. Her clients rely on her to help them maintain their own healthy lifestyle, so it is important that Laura set a good example for them in her own day-to-day life.
The reason Laura began practicing yoga was to help her clear her mind. She often found herself worrying about things in her life that she had no control over yet couldn't keep herself from being anxious about.
One day, a client told her that he could no longer afford her services and he would be leaving. Laura instantly began to worry that she had done something wrong and that the client was not satisfied with her and that is why he was leaving. She found herself reflecting on every interaction they had had in their time together and started questioning some of her tactics.
Her anxiety began to become obvious to some of her other clients, and they in turn began questioning her strategy. Although she counsels her clients about healthy lifestyle practices, she has to remind herself daily that her thoughts and fears impact her own lifestyle in a negative way. If Laura worries too much, she notices that her immune system becomes run down as well, and she often ends up not feeling well or being able to see her clients.
Solution-Focused Coping and Positive Stress
Laura knows what is required of her in order to preserve homeostasis, but it's hard for her to not let her anxiety take control of her. It ends up becoming a cycle that Laura has to break in order to maintain homeostasis. She found that in order to do that she can use solution-focused coping, meaning take control of your life where you can. Instead of focusing all her energy on things that she can't change, she focuses in on the things she can and improves upon those aspects of her life.
Both women are very different in regards to their tolerance of stress, but the key for them is becoming aware of this and doing what they need to do to be their best. For some, stress is such a part of their everyday lives that they adapt easily to the demands placed on them. For others, stress is so nonexistent that one slight change in their everyday lives easily tips the homeostasis scale in the wrong direction.
One important question remains though: is all stress bad? The answer is no. We need positive stress to thrive and excel at life. Positive stress provides a different kind of reaction in our minds and bodies that help to balance out the negative stress. Changes such as marriage, childbirth, or graduation can all cause stress but in a good way. It gives us a sense of purpose and direction and motivates us to rise to the challenges that we face in our everyday lives.
So now, we know that homeostasis means 'same' and 'stable.' How we maintain homeostasis depends on who we are and how we handle the different stressors we are faced with. We know that not all stress is bad and we do need positive stress in order to thrive and excel. Negative stress, on the other hand, can cause strain or tension either physically or mentally.
Lena and Laura were both good examples of two people in their everyday lives that can handle different levels of stress before their lives become dysfunctional. They each found their own ways of adapting through exercise, relaxation, or solution-focused coping by taking control of your life where you can.
Life is a balancing act, and our amazing bodies adapt to so many different changes throughout our lifetime. Taking care of ourselves as a whole package, mind and body, is essential. Keeping it all in check is the key to homeostasis.
After this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe homeostasis in terms of psychological health
- Differentiate between positive stress and negative stress
- Explain ways that people can cope with stress and maintain psychological homeostasis