Is Stress Really Real?
The word ‘stress” is another of the popular fuzzy words that everyone uses
but no one really understands. Stress is a noun, verb, adjective and adverb, so
versatile grammatically that it defies all reasonable definition. Hans Selye
started the “stress” fad by doing terrible things to rats in his laboratory such
as injuring them with painful electrical shocks, burns, toxins, and forcing them
to swim in a closed container until exhausted. These near-drowning experiences
were described as stressful.
While Selye called these traumatic experiences “stress;” others might call
his experiments “torture”. Sometimes the “torture-stress” was an allergic
reaction to a foreign protein that he injected. Selye’s rats would tell you that
“stress” was painful, scary and often life-threatening. The “stress response”
that Selye observed was a progression of body responses to injury that gave an
animal an opportunity to survive. Selye’s main discovery is that the adaptation
to injury involved increased fight and flight responses and secretion of
cortisol from the adrenal glands. If the injury was repeated or prolonged, the
adaptation would fail and the animal could die.
The original and specific meaning of the word "stress" has been lost in
popular usage. Emotional responses are often referred to as “stress.” Tiring or
frustrating experiences are often called “stress.” Conflict is also referred to
One problem with such a fuzzy word is that it overrides a host of
more useful concepts and words that describe human experiences in more precise
and meaningful ways. Intellectual progress can be made simply by deleting the
word, stress from your vocabulary or you could start with re-definition of
“stress” by noting that the fundamental task of living beings to find things in
the world out there that they need to survive, to avoid danger and to adapt to
changing circumstances. Since the environment changes constantly, humans are
required to adapt constantly. When the change is too great or too sudden, a
failure of adaptation occurs, with malfunctioning of mind/body as a consequence.
A meaningful use of the word stress in science refers to the activation of
the flight and fight response with increased sympathetic nervous system
activity, and the secretion of adrenalin and cortisol from the adrenal glands.
You could argue that any interaction between individual and environment that
produces dysfunction expressed as symptoms and disease could be called
"stressful." Any event, agent, or component of the environment that causes a
maladaptive response is then called a "stressor". A maladaptive response to a
changing environment might be as simple a changing jobs and the new canteen only
serves cheese burgers, French fries and coke for lunch. You get obesity, high
blood pressure and diabetes after 10 years on the job.
If you had stayed at the old company and continued to have salads and orange
juice for lunch, you would be healthy and well. Maladaptation leads to dysphoria
and disease. Successful adaptation leads to happiness and health. For most
people living ordinary lives in relatively safe environments, the most stressful
events are those changes in the environment and food supply that internal
control systems can neither control nor predict.
Events that cause unstable changes in body function require adaptive
responses. If responses work, the instability is reduced and no stress occurs.
If the responses do not work, then body systems, seeking balance, become
confused and maladaptive body-states and maladaptive behaviors appear. A healthy
person copes with a remarkable range of adversity and emerges intact, whereas a
sick person cannot cope with the ordinary transactions of daily life.