Everything exists in a state of balance, or homeostasis; that never ending attempt to find an equilibrium, that place where opposing forces and influences are balanced, where a sense of calm is achieved and where everything can perform at its best. This is especially true of physiological processes, but it is also true of psychological processes. But, what happens when that balance is sent out of kilter?
Trouble, that’s what.
Homeostasis is typically defined at the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.
One example of homeostasis is the body’s ability to maintain an internal temperature of around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, no matter what the temperature is outside.
So, based on the concept of balance between opposing systems, homeostasis is built into the structure of the nervous system. Most biological systems operate within a process of homeostatic balance to prevent the system from straying outside the range required for optimal functioning. It’s key to life. Failures in homeostasis can lead to diseases like hypertension and diabetes. But, that’s not all.
This balance of opposites is also evident at a psychological level. There is tension and relaxation, motivation and inhibition, conscious and unconscious, happiness and sadness, a state of mental calm and a state of mental stress.
In psychotherapy then, it can be argued that neurotic symptoms (such as anxiety and depression) manifest themselves when psychological homeostatic balance breaks down. As that balance is regained, so the symptoms fade. However, these neurotic symptoms are maintained when a person is unable to readdress that balance.
All forms of psychotherapy, from a certain point of view, exist to help a person regain appropriate psychological homeostatic balance. Regaining this balance means a person can deal with their emotional problems, and with the stresses and strains of everyday life, more effectively.
Over the years, many studies have looked at the effect of stress on the process of homeostasis in animals (especially agricultural animals, poor lambs). Typically, these experiments frighten, disturb and deprive the animals of sleep. All animals cope very well with threats to their homeostatic balance. But – perhaps obviously – only to a certain point.
Every person, every animal, every system has a breaking point.
When that point is reached, the system breaks down, the animal gets ill; it develops all sorts of diseases and mental health problems. In worse case scenarios, the system gives up the fight altogether and the animal dies.
So, the moral of the story is, don’t let repeated stresses get to you. Find time to take time out: sleep, relax, recover, have fun where you can, seek out psychotherapy if you need it, and do whatever you can to bring some balance back into your life.
If you don’t, the consequences could be fatal.