If someone asks you how you’re feeling after a long and hectic day, the chances that you’d say ‘I’m feeling stressed’ are high. Stress is a concept everyone is aware of today, but that wasn’t the case some seventy years ago. However, the late Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian scientist, was one of the first men to recognize stress and its role in the body. This explains why he is widely referred to as the ‘father of stress.’
In this article, we will examine the role Hans Selye played in popularizing the concept of stress and its relevance in our society today.
Origin of stress
As I said, everyone knows about stress today. Is it working too hard at work during the day, long classes, or even having to navigate one’s way through all the UK traffic and all, there is always a representation of stress in our society today. We have even developed several techniques, both medical and non-medical, to combat this stress. However, there was a time people weren’t stress-literate.
Stress first burst onto the scene in 1936 through a science journal called Nature. The journal referred to stress as ‘a syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents’ and was based on the work of Hans Selye with rats.
Through his ovarian hormones research in Montreal, Canada, Hans Selye accidentally discovered that the rats in his research were not killed by diseases but by stress. In his research, Hans Selye injected rats with the ovarian hormone, causing their thymus glands to deteriorate, causing certain symptoms and health conditions, like ulcers. The rats in his research died. Selye later inferred that stress and artificial hormones, as well ‘any kind of damage,’ caused the same thing.
In 1956, Selye proposed a general adaptation syndrome, which described stress in three steps. The first step is challenge or alarm, such as the appearance of an aggressor. The second step is resistance, which is characterized by the body trying to handle the challenge. The body may do this by fighting, fleeing, or adapting to the challenge. This stage sees the activation of the body’s sympathetic system, which is responsible for the flight or fight response. After this initial sympathetic response, there is the parasympathetic system’s activation, which counters the sympathetic response. The last of Selye’s three-step sequence is exhaustion. Naturally, the body should effectively deal with the challenge in the second step by the activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Still, not all challenges are time-limited or permit the body to respond quickly and decisively. In this case, the body continues to resist and eventually becomes exhausted.
Selye termed the whole three-step sequence stress.
Criticism and acceptance of Selye’s work
Selye’s work and postulations were not received very open-heartedly back then. There were still many questions that many felt needed answers before his theories could be considered valid. Some of the questions asked were: what stimuli activate the whole process, what chain of actions marks the activation process, and what determines if a person adapts or become exhausted?
One problem with Selye’s work is that he referred to stress as an agent and the consequences of that agent. It didn’t make much sense, and another scientist mocked Selye’s postulations, saying stress is the result of itself and also the cause of itself. This problem was later said to be due to Selye’s understanding of the English language, with his friend, Paul Rosch, saying Selye would have been known as the father of strain if his English was better.
Although Selye posited that we cannot possibly avoid stress because our body is always working, even in our sleep, the public understood stress as a concept outside of the body that should be avoided.
Selye’s work was not widely accepted because many parameters just didn’t seem right at the time. His whole research was not totally binned, as it was the basis of many other studies that have connected stress to diseases, like diabetes, arthritis, and some heart conditions. He also received Nobel prize nominations for five straight years from 1949 to 1953.
Relevance and significance of Selye’s work today
We have more understanding of stress today, and science has validated many of Selye’s theories, although not all. However, many of Selye’s ways would not have been praised or even tolerated today. Selye reportedly tortured animals, starving and stressing them out. Selye also connected some of his observations on rats to observations he made when he was studying medicine in Czech, Prague, to be precise. According to reports, the patients in Czech also showed lethargic symptoms, as well as depression.
His name was tainted further when reports linked him to a project that saw scientists try to pass tobacco as mild and benign. Even amid all these allegations, Selye’s work is still respected, and he is referred to as the stress pioneer.
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