By peace | December 22, 2006
Dr. Hans Selye was the pioneer in research into stress. As early as his second year of medical school (1926), he began developing his now-famous theory of the influence of stress on people’s ability to cope with and adapt to the pressures of injury and disease. He discovered that patients with a variety of ailments manifested many similar symptoms, which he ultimately attributed to their bodies’ efforts to respond to the stresses of being ill. He called this collection of symptoms–this separate stress disease–stress syndrome, or the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).
He spent a lifetime in continuing research on GAS and wrote some 30 books and more than 1,500 articles on stress and related problems, including Stress without Distress (1974) and The Stress of Life (1956). So impressive have his findings and theories been that some authorities refer to him as “the Einstein of medicine.”
More than anyone else, Selye has demonstrated the role of emotional responses in causing or combating much of the wear and tear experienced by human beings throughout their lives.
Stress is any demand or set of demands requiring adaptation. The word “stress” derives from the Latin stringere, “to stretch”. The term implies a stretching of physical and psychological resources to meet demands placed on an organism.
Hans Selye first popularized the concept of “stress” in the 1950s. Selye theorized that all individuals respond to all types of threatening situations in the same manner, and he called this the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Hans SelyeHe claimed that, in addition to SNS arousal, other bodily systems such as the adrenal cortex and pituitary gland may be involved in a response to threat. For example, chemicals such as epinephrine (adrenaline) may serve to focus the body’s attention just on immediate self-preservation by inhibiting such functions as digestion, reproduction, tissue repair, and immune responses. Ultimately, as the threat wanes, Selye suggested, body functions return to normal, allowing the body to focus on healing and growth again. But if the threat is prolonged and chronic, the SNS arousal never gets “turned off,” and health can be impaired. With a continuously suppressed immune system, for example, a person would be more vulnerable than usual to infection—which is one explanation of why some individuals get sick so often.
And, regardless of whether Selye was right or not, psychology, as well as medicine and popular culture, have accepted the concept of “stress” as an unpleasant fact of life.
What stress is not
The word stress has been used so loosely, and so many confusing definitions of it have been formulated, that I think it will be best to start by clearly stating what it is not. Contrary to current popular or medical opinion:
1. Stress is not nervous tension. Stress reactions do occur in lower animals and even in plants, which have no nervous system. The general manifestations of an alarm reaction can be induced by mechanically damaging a denervated limb. Indeed, stress can be produced under deep anesthesia in patients who are unconscious, and even in cell cultures grown outside the body.
2. Stress is not an emergency discharge of hormones from the adrenal medulla. An adrenaline discharge is frequently seen in acute stress affecting the whole body, but it plays no conspicuous role in generalized inflammatory diseases (arthritis, tuberculosis) although they can also produce considerable stress. Nor does an adrenaline discharge play any role in “local stress” reactions, limited to directly injured regions of the body.
3. Stress is not that which causes a secretion by the adrenal cortex of its hormones (the corticoids). ACTH, the adrenal-stimulating pituitary hormone, can discharge these hormones without producing any evidence of stress.
4. Stress is not the nonspecific result of damage only. Normal and even pleasant activities – a game of tennis or a passionate kiss – can produce considerable stress without causing conspicuous damage.
5. Stress Is not the deviation from homeostasis, the steady state of the body. Any specific biologic function, e.g., the perception of sound or light, the contraction of a muscle, eventually causes marked deviations from the normal resting state in the active organs. This is undoubtedly associated with some local demand for increased vital activity, but it can cause only “local stress” and even this does not necessarily parallel the intensity of the specific activity.
6. Stress is not that which causes an alarm reaction. The stressor does that, not stress itself.
7. Stress is not identical with the alarm reaction or with the G.A.S. as a whole. These are characterized by certain measurable organ changes which are caused by stress.
8. Stress itself is not a nonspecific reaction. The pattern of the stress reaction is very specific: it affects certain organs (e.g., the adrenal, the thymus, the gastrointestinal tract) in a highly selective manner.
9. Stress is not a reaction to a specific thing. The stress response can be produced by virtually any agent.
10. Stress is not necessarily undesirable. It all depends on how you take it. The stress of failure, humiliation, or infection is detrimental; but that of exhilarating, creative, successful work is beneficial. The stress reaction, like energy consumption, may have good or bad effects.
11. Stress cannot and should not be avoided. Everybody is always under some degree of stress. Even while quietly asleep our heart must continue to beat, our lungs to breathe, and even our brain works in the form of dreams. Stress can be avoided only by dying. The statement “He is under stress” is just as meaningless as “He is running a temperature. ” What we actually refer to by means of such phrases is an excess of stress or of body temperature.
“Man should not try to avoid stress any more than he would shun food, love or exercise.”