Definition of Stress

The term “stress” was originally coined in 1936 by Hans Selye, a Hungarian physician, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”.

While studying medicine, Selye made a powerful observation that patients exhibited identical signs and symptoms though they are suffering from different diseases. He later called it the General Adaptation Syndrome, a response of the body to demands placed upon it. He explained in detail how stress induces the hormonal and autonomic nervous system responses and, over time, these hormonal changes may lead to different diseases such as ulcers, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, kidney disease, and allergic reactions.

Selye also observed that laboratory animals subjected to different acute noxious stimuli such as (blaring light, deafening noise, extremes of cold or heat, perpetual frustration) have all showed same pathological changes of stomach ulcers, enlarged adrenals, shrinkage of lymphoid tissue etc. He also demonstrated that persistent stress could cause these animals to develop various diseases similar to those seen in humans, such as heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

We recognize that the same stress syndrome can be found in both animals and humans even though they are exposed to very different stressors.

It is normal to feel stress and it is actually helpful when faced with real challenges. It is crucial that we are alert and filled with energy when faced with real threats, such as if we are being mugged or caught up in a natural catastrophe.

 A small degree of stress is actually helpful to keep one alert and active to prepare for an examination or a performance. Selye called this good stress, or “eustress”as it improves our productivity. But when the degree of stress gets higher, it actually hinders the performance.

We also see that stress is subjective. The same situation such as an examination, a divorce or a mammogram can be stressful to one person but not to another. There is also a huge degree of variance in how stressed one can get given the same challenge.

Even pleasant situations such as holidays or a wedding can be stressful when they are seen as a challenge or a demand.

In his later years, when asked to define stress, Selye told reporters, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.” This illustrates the confusion around this word stress which has been used to describe the effects of it as well as the causes of it. 

While everyone can’t agree on a definition of stress, all of our experimental and clinical research confirms that the sense of having little or no control is always distressful – and that’s what stress is all about.

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