The straw that broke the camel’s back: the interplay of resilience, stress and self-stigma

by Jane Mahoney, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC on July 12, 2010 · 2 comments

in research,stigma,therapy

We’re all familiar with the expression “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” which Charles Dickens coined in Dombey and Son. Humans are resilient creatures, but we all have limits to our ability to endure under pressure.

In the past, we thought resilience was a product of a strong will. However, neuroscience and other areas of research have provided us with a fresh new lens through which we are able to better understand our limits. This knowledge is freeing–it allows us to be free from the self-imposed stigma Tom Ellis, PsyD, ABPP, referred to in an earlier post.

This self-imposed stigma can be the result of our internal narrative that speaks about the need to be stoic and shoulder all adversity that comes our way. When we find that we are not able to hold true to this narrative, we often believe that we have failed. In thinking this way we relegate ourselves to the margins of society and fulfill the new narrative of “being less than.”

Allostatic overload

The scientific term for “the straw that broke the camel’s back” is “allostatic overload.” This refers to one becoming ill as a result of the chronic over activation of the body’s regulating systems–some of which are voluntary, and some of which are not.

We have often thought of the human physiological regulatory systems (the body’s components for keeping us healthy) as being somewhat independent. For example, we might have focused on the health of the heart and not realized the interplay of the cardiovascular system with the other systems in the body.

Medical scientists who study allostatic overload understand that the human body is much more complex. This new way of thinking is based on a “whole body” view about health. Our own unique genetic and biological makeup interacts with the biology and minds of other people and with the external environment in often fairly unpredictable unique ways.

Understanding stress

When our narrative speaks about the need to be stoic and “hold up” under pressure, we are basically saying that there is only one answer to handling our stress, and that if we do not rise up over adversity, we have failed. In doing so, we do not recognize that our physiology also plays a role in how we manage stress.

While some medical professionals overemphasize the biological aspects of stress, others tend to focus only on the psychological aspects of “the mind.” We have all heard people say, “It’s all in your head.” Instead, it would be more helpful to remember that the “whole body” is made up of both body and mind and that these are not separate parts of the whole.

The whole body can only take so much pressure before it gives out, regardless of how “strong” we are psychologically or physically.

Stress and mental illness

The concept of allostatic overload gives us a new approach to thinking about the complexity of stress which is often manifested as mental illness. It helps us realize that internal body mechanisms beyond our complete control are also at play in our reactions to events that cause us stress. Furthermore, this way of thinking helps us understand the importance of interacting with others in a healing environment.

When we develop this awareness, we can see the importance of reaching out to mental health professionals who have experience in helping shape new healthy narratives, ones that can influence body functions in a positive way. This can result in a shift from a self-imposed state of stigma to one that helps us interpret a situation without guilt and failing. The new narrative has the potential for placing us more fully in healing relationships with others, rather than isolated on the margins. Being in healing relationships provides a person with added support to carry the “last straw.”

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Syd McLeod June 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm

The Centre of Military Veterans Health located at the Medical School at the University of Queensland has just completed a paper search of Allostatic Load /Overload for the Australian Department Of Veteran Affairs at the instigation of my self. The object being to not only to bring the discussion to the fore front but also iniate research into how it operates that aspect is being partially addressed in the next Australian contingent on rotation to Afghanistan.
As for the Paper itself the Department has taken no action so far despite it being aimed at being Peer reviewed.

Roger Verdon July 16, 2010 at 3:24 pm

I appreciate your thoughtful deconstruction of the overload process. Some of us go along believing that stoicism is the answer to life’s glum.
Your thoughtful piece suggests that there is hope. Thanks for that. Stoicism is a loner’s philosophy and it helps mightily to know that there is caring and understanding amid the current flow of derision and petty howls that seems to prevail everywhere. At a time when we take such pleasure in the pain of others, critically bludgeoning each other for every perceived flaw, it is easy to see how the camel’s back can be so fragile. We litigate precipitously, accuse prematurely, act without thinking.
We have become bullies, which is a cowardly thing.
I am of the opinion that we, all of us, need a little help.
Thanks for your clear articulation of the problem. It provided me insight.

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