The Allostatic Load of Christianity: How Toxic Theology Can Stress The Shit Out of Us

We’ll start with a 2-min science lesson: Allostatic load is what happens when we’re always running from the bear

There’s this thing that neuropscyhologists talk about sometimes called allostasis. Now, this is gonna get a little scientific, but bear with me! I’ll break it down for ya. With bears.

When we meet life’s challenges, our bodies lose energy. Allostasis is the process of replacing it. Allo- = different, -stasis = equilibrium – so when something in our bodies changes, allostasis balances it out.

Whether that’s prolonged hunger (a bear ate all my food!), a sudden and huge need for energy (the bear is trying to eat me!), etc., our bodies will adapt – for instance, mining energy from fat reserves if we’re starving, or pumping us full of adrenaline so we can run from Angry Glutton Bear. 

Allostasis, in this case, might look like us sleeping a lot to replenish the energy we lost running and not having enough food.

It gets tricky, though, when we don’t have the time or resources for allostasis to happen. Imagine if there were 40 Angry Glutton Bears always chasing us around and scarfing up all the food. We wouldn’t be able to get those power naps we need to catch up on the energy spent from being hungry and living on the run.

And eventually? We’d enter a state of permanent stress, and allostasis would fall behind. That creates an allostatic loadOur bodies would start bearing (hehe!) the burden of being tired and hungry all the time. We might get aches and pains; we might be more prone to catching a cold; we might heal from bear scratches slower. Allostatic load is the wear and tear on our bodies when we aren’t allowed to recharge from stress. 

That’s why people with chronic stress – whether we’re abuse/trauma survivors, mentally ill, or balls-deep in toxic Christianity, etc. – can get un-bear-ably exhausted!

Christianity is the bear

I first read about allostatic load on The Crazy Herbalist, and if you’ve got the time and patience, I highly highly recommend the article. It’s actually part of a brilliant series on CPTSD and why/how our bodies and minds respond to neglect/trauma/abuse. I won’t lie, that series turned me into an emotional wreck these past 3 days. It’s changed the game on how I see my trauma, upbringing, and depression. But that’s a post for another time!

Like The Crazy Herbalist pointed out, allostatic load doesn’t just have to be physical. It can be psychological and spiritual too. If you’ve ever resonated with the phrase “I’m Tired with a capital T,” well, that’s allostatic load! And I think Christianity can make us Tired.

There are so many different and exquisitely terrible Christian ideas we can look at for an example, but let’s start with this amazing post I read on Darcy’s Heart-Stirrings today.

From babyhood they said “You are a dirty sinner, there is nothing good in you, you are destined for hell because of your nature.”

So we, small humans, awoke to a world where toddlers need the sin and foolishness beaten out of them with switches and wooden spoons and belts.

They said “Only with Jesus are you worth anything.”

So as small children we begged Jesus to come into our hearts and make the dirty clean.

They said “Because of your sin, God cannot look at you, Jesus had to die. You killed him.”

So we mourned that we were so sinful that God couldn’t look at us without someone else standing in our place.

…and so on.

Look, it’s not hard to see how Christianity puts, to borrow The Crazy Herbalist’s phrasing, a “big-ass allostatic load” on its believers. It is constantly telling us, in 101 creative ways…

  • that we suck by default. Not even because of what we do… but because we are human.
  • that we’re nothing without God, and we don’t deserve him. Every time we sin, we nail Jesus to the cross again. 
  • that our bodies are dirty. I couldn’t even wear tank tops around my dad or twin, because, ya know, didn’t want to Make the Boys Stumble.
  • that romance and sex are Bad even spending time alone with a boy or kissing can destroy part of you. (As a side note, Passport2Purity is a bitch.)
  • that we owe God EVERYTHING we are – thought life, social life, sex life, career and life choices, free time. Anything less than 100% of our existence is selfish.
  • that we should be happy and forgiving all the time. After all, Jesus died on the cross for you to be happy and trust in him, so how can we have complaints? This can compound our non-religious problems, like keeping us in abuse or not taking time to relax –> EXTRA allostatic load.

We have to carry that with us. ALL THE TIME. Everywhere. Sermons and Bible studies and songs reinforce it. We have to take the ideas that we’re inherently terrible and deserve hell and need God to change us and don’t deserve to feel bad about problems with us. 24/7. 

And if you have an abuser/rapist in your life? It’s even worse. Being abused? You can’t hate them, that’s murder in your heart, and besides, if Jesus forgave you, you’d be horrible not to give them a second chance. Been raped? Don’t tell anyone, because you probably tempted them, and besides, now you’ve lost the gift of virginity for your future husband.

And the worst thing about all of this is? There is no respite. There is no way to ease the immense guilt, thought policing, body shame, worthlessness, and fear of messing up. Because you don’t just stop believing, not when you were raised in it – unless you’re one of the lucky ones. Oftentimes, Christianity is OUR WHOLE LIVES. It’s our social circles. Our comfort. Our purpose and worth. Our confidence in the universe. Our relationship with Jesus. Our career and education may be shaped around it. Our communities may discriminate against us if we leave, our families may disown us. And what if we’re wrong and we go to hell after we die?

So we stay longer. And all of that just creates one big, fat psycho-spiritual allostatic load.

That can manifest in any way. Often we come out of fundamental religion with huge feelings of guilt, panic, distrust, shame, grief. We can be traumatized by deconverting. And we bear (again, hehe!) the brunt of all the mental energy we burned under such toxic ideology – that chronic stress may have worsened or given us anxiety, eating disorders, depression, panic, PTSD, medical problems, and a host of other undiagnosable issues.

And the problem is that it doesn’t just go away. We have those problems for good now and if we can’t work them out – which takes time, therapy (money/a ton of mental energy) and social support systems we may not have – the allostatic load can grow. We relieve our allostatic loads by processing all the shit we never got to in the first place and learning healthy ways of living, behaving, and thinking, but everyone does it differently.

I’m wondering… how does allostatic load translate for you? How did Christian ideas stress you out without letting you destress? Did they manifest in physical ailments? Mental strain? Relationship problems? Did they make any of those problems worse by discouraging you from getting help? Comment below – take a “load” off. :+)

I hope the Christian allostatic load is something you will bear in mind…

4 thoughts on “The Allostatic Load of Christianity: How Toxic Theology Can Stress The Shit Out of Us

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