Stressing the History of Stress
When talking about science and medicine, in particular, it’s often helpful to understand how conditions come to be known and diagnosed. If we are to trace our modern-day conception of stress we have to take a quick journey back to the mid-19th century to a Paris-trained scientist named Claude Bernard, who developed the concept of Milieu intérieur, which describes the importance of the internal environment of the human body.
The concept that there is an internal environment with processes that regulate and ultimately manifest our external reality is the foundational concept that led Walter Cannon to coin the term homeostasis.
Homeostasis describes how our bodies maintain a steady internal state through the balancing of chemicals in the body.
Walter Cannon was important and notable to the development of the theory of stress for more than coining the term homeostasis, as he worked to develop the concept of “fight or flight.”
The fight or flight response describes how animals, including humans, respond to various threats (stress) by fighting off the threat or running away to avoid the threat entirely. There is a third response to threats that have also been shown to occur, namely the freezing response in which we are paralyzed by fear and unable to respond to the threat.
I want to take a second when describing the history of stress to emphasize that the word stress can be traced back to the Middle Ages and is derived from distress, which is a state of extreme necessity or misfortune. I point this out because originally, stress was not related to a physical or even psychological state but more to a person’s situational or societal standing.
Ok, let’s get back to how we have derived our current understanding of stress. Building on the work of Walter Cannon was Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist who described general adaptation syndrome. General adaptation syndrome (GAS), which describes how organisms’ bodies (hormones and body reactions) respond to stressors, both good stressors (eustress) and bad stressors (distress). Selye’s work dived into the individual hormones that were contributing to an animal’s reaction to stress and set the stage for the physiology of stress.
In summary, stress has been a condition humans have dealt with since the beginning of their existence. Although the causes of stress have changed over time due to a shift in our lifestyles, the body’s response is still the same. Let’s get into the physiological response to understand better what the brain and body does in response to stressors.