Hans Selye and Paris Hilton: Gerald Weissmann’s Thoughts about the Experimental Pathology of Stress

Hans Selye and Paris Hilton
Stress like relativity is a scientific concept, which has suffered from the mixed blessing
of being too well known and too little understood’
– Hans Selye, 1980

In a recent FASEB editorial, Gerald Weissmann comments on the modern use of the word ‘stress’ and its evolution from Hans Selye’s original definition.

According to Weissmann, the Editor-in-Chief of the FASEB journal, Selye first advanced the notion of stress as a generalized response to any insult in 1936, which ultimately led to the investigation of stress hormones’ link to a variety of conditions.

Weissmann argues that Hans Selye pursued two careers – experimental pathology and public relations, and he was a success at both. In the 1940s and 1950s Selye began to promote ‘stress’ as “the major cause, mode of transmission and treatment of most human ills, be they mental or physical.” By the 1950s, stress was linked to herpes and whooping cough, cancer, and the common cold. This also includes high blood pressure, peptic ulcers and coronary thrombosis (New Scientist, 12 Nov. 1959).

As per Weissmann, stress is a ‘top banana’. Thus, according to the American Institute of Stress, stress is America’s #1 health problem. Moreover, in the 1990s the World Health Organization called the stress of everyday life “a worldwide epidemic.”

The publicization of the scientific term ‘stress’ set the stage for the modern everyday inculpation of “stress”, be it in terms of established psychological responses to life-threatening situations (PTSD) or in frivolous displays of celebrity angst.

Weissmann adroitly juxtaposes the experiences of American soldiers returned from Iraq and the news coverage of heiress Paris Hilton’s hyped up jail sentence, described by her as “traumatic”, thus highlighting the incongruity between the popularized and the scientific versions of ‘stress’.

As per Weissmann “The day after Paris Hilton was released from the Los Angeles County jail she confessed to Larry King on CNN that “I’ve been through a lot and it was a pretty traumatic experience.” Furthermore, quote: “Even before Ms. Hilton was jailed for violating a court order, she had stopped eating “under the stress” of her impending stay in the hoosegow. Since her stress preceded the trauma, Paris Hilton may be the first well-documented case of “Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

And the other quote: “Sergeant Padilla, 28, could not ward off memories of the people he had killed with a machine gun perched on his Bradley fighting vehicle. On April 1, according to the authorities and friends, he withdrew to the shadows of his Colorado Springs home, pressed the muzzle of his Glock pistol to his temple and squeezed the trigger. Sergeant Padilla had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at Fort Carson Army base.”

– From “Fighting the Terror of Battles In Soldiers’ Heads” D. Frosch, New York Times, May 13, 2007.

According to Weissmann, Angela Patmore’s recent The Truth About Stress (2006) estimates that the stress-management industry in the US eats up about $18 billion each year. And it’s no wonder that “stress” has been tossed into the word-salad of psychobabble with such other ingredients as “anger-management,” “self-esteem,” “insecurity,” and “closure.”

Weissmann concludes stating that “when we eventually understand the biology of the stress syndromes, we’ll have Hans Selye, the experimental pathologist, to thank”.

Source: FASEB J 2007, 21: 2635
Read more: FASEB

Some quotes from Hans Selye (selected from goodreads.com):

“It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it”
-Hans Selye, The Stress of Life

“As much as we thirst for approval, we dread condemnation.”
-Hans Selye

“Hans Selye, the pioneer in the understanding of human stress, was often asked the following question: “What is the most stressful condition a person can face?” His unexpected response: “Not having something to BELIEVE in.”
-Hans Selye, From Dream To Discovery: On Being A Scientist

“I doubt that Fleming could have obtained a grant for the discovery of penicillin on that basis [a requirement for highly detailed research plans] because he could not have said, ‘I propose to have an accident in a culture so that it will be spoiled by a mould falling on it, and I propose to recognize the possibility of extracting an antibiotic from this mould.”
-Hans Selye, From Dream To Discovery: On Being A Scientist

“The element of chance in basic research is overrated. Chance is a lady who smiles only upon those few who know how to make her smile.”
-Hans Selye

“To make a great dream come true, you must first have a great dream.”
-Hans Selye

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Hans Selye and the Birth of the Stress Concept
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