Stressed World and Hans Selye
More than eighty years after Hans Selye introduced the concept and term ‘stress’ there is a very substantial body of evidence that psychological stress is linked to the pathogenesis of several common human diseases.
According to the American Institute of Stress, stress is America’s #1 health problem.
Two-thirds of all office visits to family physicians are due to stress-related symptoms (American Academy of Family Physicians).
Time magazine’s June 6, 1983 cover story called stress “The Epidemic of the Eighties”.
A Harvard Medical School study of 1,623 heart attack survivors found that when subjects got angry during emotional conflicts, their risk of subsequent heart attacks was more than double that of those that remained calm (EzineArticles).
According to a Mayo Clinic study of individuals with heart disease, psychological stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac events, such as cardiac death, cardiac arrest and heart attacks (EzineArticles).
Three 10-year studies concluded that emotional stress was more predictive of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease than smoking. People who were unable to effectively manage their stress had a 40% higher death rate than non-stressed individuals (EzineArticles).
High levels of hostility predict heart disease more often than high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, or obesity (Health Psychology, November 2002).
More than one third of Americans say they have had an illness that was primarily caused by stress (APA 2005). Also, one third of US employees change jobs because of psychological stress. Moreover, job burnout, in general, is reaching an unprecedented level, and as per a January 2017 Mayo Clinic Proceedings report “50% of US physicians are experiencing professional burnout”.
Work-related stress can double one’s risk of dying from heart disease (British Medical Journal, 2002).
Stress causes American industry more than $300 billion annually in lost hours, that is $7500 per employee, due to absenteeism, reduced productivity, workers’ compensation benefits, high turnover, and medical, legal and insurance costs, related to unmanaged stress (The American Institute of Stress).
Women who have taxing jobs with little control over their busy days are at higher risk for heart attacks or the need for coronary bypass surgery (HealthDay/MedlinePlus 2010).
High cortisol levels strongly predict cardiovascular death among persons both with and without preexisting cardiovascular disease. Persons in the highest tertile of urinary cortisol have a five times increased risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.
Stress may account for 30% of all infertility problems (WebMD). Also, perceived stress and stressful life events are associated with semen quality such as sperm concentration, motility and morphology, and thus, male infertility.
These are a few examples suggesting that we live in a ‘stressed world’ and underlining the significance of the stress research field.
The modern origin of stress research may reside in the elegant work of Walter Cannon at the beginning of the 20th century, and his ‘flight or fight’ response, the concept of ‘homeostasis’ and the ‘wisdom of the body’.
The term ‘stress’, however was introduced in the 1930s by Hans Selye, shortly after his first original study on ‘A syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents’, published in Nature, in 1936 (the word “stress” in this publication was substituted with an “alarm reaction”, due to editorial intervention).
In 1946, Dr. Selye had formulated his general concept of stress and its effects on the organism in his article: ‘The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation’ in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, where he wrote: “….many maladies are due not so much to what happens to us as to our inability to adapt, and they have therefore been called “diseases of adaptation”.
In 1955, in his Science article, entitled ‘Stress and disease’ Selye proposed that a deficient host defense due to abnormalities of neuroendocrine factors may lead to disease – he discussed the role of ‘….an absolute excess or deficiency in the amount of adaptive hormones ….the production by stress of metabolic derangements, which abnormally alter the target organ’s response to adaptive hormones…”. Selye also wrote in his 1956 book ‘The Stress of Life’, “Our failure to adjust ourselves correctly to life-situations is at the very root of the disease-producing conflicts.”
During the following few decades, Selye predicted and promoted “stress” as a major cause of many diseases. Today, it appears his insight was correct – an increasing body of evidence that has accumulated over the last 2-3 decades indicates that stress is a confounding or major factor in the development and/or progression of several common human diseases and conditions, such as infections, atopy/allergy, autoimmunity, obesity, atherosclerosis, cancer, and, not surprisingly, several common skin diseases.
Thus, as per Gerald Weissmann in his 2007 FASEB Editorial, “when we eventually understand the biology of the stress syndromes, we’ll have Hans Selye, the experimental pathologist, to thank”.
‘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
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