BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 16, 2021 (edited December 2, 2021)
Homeostasis is derived from the Greek words for "same" and "steady," referring to any process that living things use to actively maintain fairly stable conditions necessary for survival. The term was first coined by a psychologist named Walter Cannon in 1926 (Cherry, 2021).
Homeostasis is often referred to as a physiological state, however, homeostasis also plays a significant role in psychological states. A person maintains psychological homeostasis under opposing stresses through adaptation. We adapt through a wide variety of responses that soothe our system, bringing it back into a homeostatic range.
When fears encroach, our biological systems jump out of the comfortable range, we run away from the fear, or resolve the frightening moment. Our response settles the fear, allowing our bodies to return to a normal homeostatic state.
Bessel van der Kolk MD expands on the conscious contributions to maintaining our inner equilibrium. He explains that "we need to register and act on our physical sensations to keep our bodies safe. Realizing we’re cold compels us to put on a sweater; feeling hungry or spacey tells us our blood sugar is low and spurs us to get a snack; the pressure of a full bladder sends us to the bathroom" (2015, location 1,772).
Emotions are essential for maintaining homeostatic balance. Emotion signals a need for diverting attention away from non-critical engagements and focusing on immediate threats to imbalance. Van der Kolk says, "emotion and attention are entirely related to the fundamental business of managing life within the organism. It is not possible to manage life and maintain homeostatic balance without data on the current state of the organism’s body" (location 1,776).
Physiological Homeostatic States
Physiological homeostasis "means having an ideal body temperature, heart rate, glucose level, and so on" (Sapolski 2018). Physiological and psychological homeostasis are not independent states. They are intricately weaved together. Our psychological states impact our physiological balance. Our physiological states impact our psychological balance.
Our body temperature, heartrate, and glucose levels and all the wondrous features of a living organism are reactive to internal events, such as thoughts, just as much as external events, such as a violent robber breaking into our home.
Homeostasis is the stable conditions living things actively maintain for survival and maximum sense of wellbeing. Organisms actively regulate various physiological processes to keep internal states steady and balanced.
Stressors and Stress response
A "stressor" is anything that disrupts homeostatic balance. Negative feedback is central to homeostasis. Negative feedback an organisms automatic reaction to any change imposed upon it.
A stressor is a change in conditions, creating an internal distress, calling for a response. A stressor begins a chain reaction, leading to a behavioral or cognitive response to bring the system back into homeostatic balance.
Gabor Maté M.D. explains in his fabulous book When the Body Says No that when we encounter events "we need to mount a stress response in order to preserve internal stability." Our response, he continues "may be triggered in reaction to any attack—physical, biological, chemical or psychological—or in response to any perception of attack or threat, conscious or unconscious" (2011, location 652).
Maté defines a threat as anything that destabilizes the body’s homeostasis, moving the body towards the outer reaches of "the relatively narrow range of physiological conditions within which the organism can survive and function."
Maté explains that to facilitate a stress response to rebalance the organism in the face of a threat our "blood needs to be diverted from the internal organs to the muscles, and the heart needs to pump faster. The brain needs to focus on the threat, forgetting about hunger or sexual drive. Stored energy supplies need to be mobilized, in the form of sugar molecules. The immune cells must be activated. Adrenaline, cortisol and the other stress substances fulfill those tasks" (location 652).
These adaptive biological reactions are part of the wonderous mechanisms of survival. Yet, they can go awry. Chronic stress can keep these systems activated, causing significant harm to health and wellness. Maté warns "too much sugar in the blood will cause coma; an overactive immune system will soon produce chemicals that are toxic" (location 655).
Sapolski explains that cognitive abilities to plan for the future adds to the family of stressors. He explains that things that can throw us out of balance "includes thinking you’re going to be thrown out of homeostasis" (2018, location 2,105).
Sapolski continues, "an anticipatory stress response is adaptive if there really is a physical challenge coming. However, if you’re constantly but incorrectly convinced that you’re about to be thrown out of balance, you’re being an anxious, neurotic, paranoid, or hostile primate who is psychologically stressed" (location 2,106).
For example, we think about failing the midterm examine and our system is disturbed, moving us from comfortable homeostatic balance, hormones surge through our bodies, our heartrate increases, and we are disturbed by the anxiety. We may adapt by studying, gaining confidence in our preparations, bringing our system back into balance; or we may respond by going to the night club, drinking and dancing with friends, resolving our fears through distraction.
The Window of Homeostasis
We operate within optimal states of arousal. Different situations demand varying levels of arousal to efficiently react. These levels vary between individuals. Some masterfully react under high stress with grace; others struggle at the first spike of physiological stress, emotionally cascading into a nervous breakdown.
Biology and learning lead to our individual windows of tolerance. We must work within our given ranges to optimally respond to life.
Books of Interest
A Few Words from Flourishing Life Society
Homeostasis is a central concept to wellness. Understanding homeostasis enlightens us on concepts such as emotion and illness. Life dynamically moves, changing from one moment to the next. We experience wellness when the movement is within a given range, not overly aroused or coldly detached.
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Cherry, K. (2021). What is Homeostasis? verywellmind. Published 8-11-2021. Accessed 8-15-2021.
Maté, G. (2011). When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Wiley; 1st edition
Sapolski, R.M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books; Reprint edition