Stress: just one more portion of the human condition. I suppose for some it’s that simple. But if you’re struggling with a mood or anxiety disorder, stress can be public enemy number one. When it comes to protecting ourselves from danger, it’s incumbent upon us to learn all we can about the threat. Hence, our need-to-know series…

Our friend isn’t meditating. No, he’s stressed to the max and doing all he can to keep it together. His current stress load is hard enough to deal with, but he’s also been wrestling with depressive episodes and generalized anxiety. I feel for the guy. And I know he doesn’t have to fall into the deepest, darkest abyss.

Stress abounds these days. And though I highlighted those trying to manage a mood or anxiety disorder as we opened, stress is clobbering most everyone. Goofy and treacherous times, indeed.

Be that as it may, I for one don’t care to slice and dice it. I mean, I know how and why stress hits me. I’d rather invest my personal resources in deeply understanding and managing the phenomenon.

Well, the current stressful state of many internal and external worlds is what led me to what I thought was the topic for just this week’s piece. But when I dug-in, I realized one article wasn’t going to do stress justice. So we’re going to do a series with three installments. We’ll handle defining details of stress, and its history, this week. And we’ll review the dynamics of the stress response in Part 2 and how to best manage stress in Part 3.

With the exception of the definition of stress we’re about to get into, the information for this article came from the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS). As they share their purpose on their well worth visiting website: “…dedicated to improving the physical and mental health of Canadians by empowering individuals with scientifically grounded information on the effects of stress on the brain and body.”

Lots of bright people involved with that organization.

What is stress?

What better way to get things rolling than to define our subject matter? Within our context, I like these two perspectives on stress from Merriam-Webster…

  • a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation
  • a state resulting from a stress – especially: one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium

Aside from your personal experience, think those nail it down?

But there’s much more. Did you know stress has a fascinating history? Let’s take a look…

The history of stress

what is the stress reaction

“It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”  Hans Selye

János Hugo Bruno “Hans” Selye, a 20th century Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist, is considered to be one of the pioneers of stress research.

It was Selye who came up with the term “stress,” which he borrowed from the world of physics. As you may know, in physics, stress is the force that produces strain on a physical body. For instance, bending a piece of metal until it snaps occurs because of the stress – force – exerted upon it.

It was after completing his medical training in the 1920s that Selye began using the term stress. He chose it because he noticed that no matter the diagnosis of his hospitalized patients, they had one thing in common: they all looked sick. And he surmised it was because they were all under physical stress.

Selye suggested that stress was a non-specific strain on the body caused by irregularities in normal body functioning. He went on to submit that this kind of stress releases stress hormones. Selye called this the “general adaptation syndrome” and proposed it had three stages…

  1. Alarm reaction: The immediate response to a stressor, featuring our fight/flight response. It steals energy from other systems, increasing our vulnerability to illness.
  2. Resistance: If alarm reactions continue, the body begins to get used to being stressed. The adaptation isn’t good for our health, since our energy becomes concentrated on stress reactions.
  3. Exhaustion: The final stage after long-term stress exposure. Stress resistance is gradually reduced, which sabotages our immune system, rendering it ineffective. According to Selye, on come unpleasantries such as heart attacks and severe infection because of reduced illness resistance.

Selye ended-up simplifying his terminology by referring to the syndrome as the “stress response.”

By the way, are you beginning to see the danger – threat – stress poses – and why we need to come to grips with it?

Stress research and debate

Well, Selye believed that stress impacted health. And he was right. However, the scientific minds of the day weren’t in 100% agreement with his physiological view of stress as a non-specific phenomenon.

And many physicians, psychologists, and researchers wondered about psychological stress. They believed things like personal loss, work problems, and general frustration generated boatloads of it.

Just one example of pursuing the realities of psychological stress is physician John Mason’s work. He conducted an experiment in which two groups of monkeys were deprived of food for a brief period of time. Group one monkeys were alone. Group two monkeys watched others receive food.

Now, both groups of monkeys were under the physical stress of hunger, but the monkeys that were able to see others eat showed higher stress hormone levels. Mason was able, then, to show that psychological stress was as powerful as physical stress in terms of lighting-up the body’s stress response.

Interesting – another bridge to be crossed in the early stress research years was the notion that we all may experience and respond to stress in the same way. Hmmm.

Let’s just say that over time all sorts of experiments were conducted. The bottom-line? Although the types of stressors resulting in the release and troubling elevation of stress hormones are different for everyone, there are common situational elements. How ’bout this for an acronym: N.U.T.S…

  • Novelty
  • Unpredictability
  • Threat to the ego
  • Sense of control

Ring true?

That wraps Part 1

So stress – just one more portion of the human condition that just happens to be beating a drum in the lives of many these days. Of course, that includes those of us already doing our level best to cope with a mood or anxiety disorder.

You know, I’ve always believed – and always will – that the more we learn about emotional/mental danger, the easier it is to confront and neutralize threats. So it is with stress. Again, we have to come to grips with it.

Hoping to see you back for Part 2, as we delve into the dynamics of our stress response.

Hey, be sure to visit the Centre for Studies on Human Stress site. Lots to learn from lots of smart people.

Hans Selye image:

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