Posted by: Thixia | July 2, 2008

Stress 4 of 9

The fascinating history of stress theory

The Canadian Post Office recently issued a stamp honouring Dr.  Hans Selye, who is recognized internationally as one of the two fathers of Stress Theory.  He was born in Vienna in 1907 and came to Canada in 1932, where he settled in Montreal.  It was at the University of Montreal that he did most of his world-famous work.

Dr.  Selye developed his concept of stress while studying medicine in Prague in the 1920s.  It was his genius that he saw something that his classmates and teachers were missing.  Much of medical education involved learning about different kinds of diseases and how to distinguish one from another.  In this analytical process, fine distinctions were made and focused on.  Thus, a patient with pneumonia presented differently than a patient with tuberculosis and they both presented differently than patients with heart failure, ulcers, cancer and so on.  It was Selye’s stroke of brilliance that, while everyone was concentrating on the differences among these various diseases, he was struck by their similarities.

In 1926, as a second year medical student, he noted that the patients studied at rounds all had a strikingly similar appearance: they were weak, tired, listless, apathetic, often had muscle wasting, and weight loss.  They even had similar facial expressions indicating that they were ill.  He called this picture, “the general syndrome of just being sick.” This set his inquisitive mind off in a totally different direction, searching for the common elements that affected all of these patients rather than focusing on the differences.  This eventually led him to identify the stress reaction as an underlying cause or major contributing factor to most illness.

Selye’s theories built on the earlier work of a noted Harvard physiologist named Dr.  Walter Cannon who had, at the beginning of the century, identified and named the “fight or flight response”, which is the body’s response to feeling threatened or in danger.  But whereas Cannon saw the “fight or flight” syndrome as a positive mechanism that the body uses to protect itself, Selye realized the hugely important fact that if the stress reaction goes on for too long, it causes damage to the body and leads to illness.

Another of Selye’s enduring legacies is that he borrowed the word “stress” from the field of engineering (where it refers to external mechanical forces, strains and tensions) to describe this reaction in the body.  Walter Cannon had earlier introduced the term “stress” to medicine but it was certainly Selye who popularized it.

Another of Selye’s unique and important findings was that the stress response in the body was the same no matter what the cause or source of stress (he called these sources “stressors”).  His experiments on rats in 1936 showed that various stressors such as cold, heat, infection, trauma, hemorrhage, fear, and the injection of noxious substances, all produced the same effect.  When the rats were later examined, they all had swollen and hyperactive adrenal glands, shrunken immune tissue (thymus gland and lymph nodes) and gastrointestinal ulcers.  He had created an experimental model of “the syndrome of just being sick.” He first called this reaction “a syndrome produced by various nocuous agents,” but later, on noting that a wide assortment of stressors all produced the same response, named it the general adaptation syndrome (or G.A.S.)

Selye’s theory was that the body’s supply of stress hormones eventually becomes exhausted and this is what leads to illness.  However, Robert Sapolsky notes (in his wonderful book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”) that this theory has now been replaced by evidence that these crucial hormones are not depleted; instead, after prolonged exposure, the stress response itself actually produces damage to the body.

So, the good news is that our bodies are beautifully designed to protect us by mounting a stress reaction in response to various physical threats.  The bad news is that the stress reaction cannot be sustained for too long.  Eventually the body suffers damage and either gets sick or dies.  In other words, we benefit when our bodies go into a state of high alert to deal with a specific crisis, but we pay a price if the state of arousal goes on for too long.  (Please refer also to my second column “Is Stress A Friend Or Foe?” in the archive section.) As so often happens, too much of a good thing becomes a problem.  Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to prevent the problems that result from chronic stress and to deal with them more effectively.

In my weekly columns for CANOE I will be sharing what I’ve learned about stress from academic sources, from my patients and from my own personal experience.

Over my two decades in this field I’ve made many observations and have drawn several conclusions:

  1. Most of the stress that most of us have is self-generated.  We create most of our own distress. 
  2. We have more control than we think – but, too often, we don’t use it. 
  3. There is no silver bullet or quick fix for relieving stress (although exercise and relaxation techniques come pretty close).  To master stress we have to change. 
  4. Stress Mastery is as much a MIND SET as it is a collection of tools and strategies.  It is the knowledge and confidence that, whatever happens, we will be able to handle it. 

In the months to come, I will be sharing numerous success stories to show that you, too, can take more control of your life and learn to handle stress with skill and confidence.  I hope you will join me in this ongoing discussion and my greater hope is that you will find the columns both enjoyable and beneficial.


Compliments of and written by:


Dr. David Posen




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