The use of the term ‘stress’ is now so integrated into our thoughts that it sometimes feels it has always been there. In fact stress, as we currently think of it, is a relatively new concept and is one that continues to evolve.
Had we lived in the fourteenth century we would most certainly have used the term stress. But, with one or two notable exceptions, it would have had very little to do with our psychological state, except perhaps by implication. Stress had more to do with adversity, hardship or some form of affliction. It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth century that a shift in meaning started to occur.
As most people know, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are associated with a period of intense scientific and industrial progress. As the sciences developed so language adapted in order to both accommodate and articulate these changes. The physical sciences, most notably engineering, began to use terms like stress, strain, resilience, pressure, elasticity, etc., to describe the effects of materials. Nearly everyone will recognise these as expressions commonly used within medicine and psychology. Still others, like ‘snapping’ or ‘breaking point’, tend not to be used within the professions these days but they retain a position in everyday language relating to emotions or behaviour.
The term stress was borrowed from the field of physics by one of the fathers of stress research Hans Selye. In physics, stress describes the force that produces strain on a physical body (i.e.: bending a piece of metal until it snaps occurs because of the force, or stress, exerted on it).
Hans Selye began using the term stress after completing his medical training at the University of Montreal in the 1920’s. He noticed that no matter what his hospitalized patients suffered from, they all had one thing in common. They all looked sick. In his view, they all were under physical stress.
He proposed that stress was a non-specific strain on the body caused by irregularities in normal body functions. This stress resulted in the release of stress hormones. He called this the “General Adaptation Syndrome” (a closer look at general adaptation syndrome, our body’s short-term and long-term reactions to stress).
Selye pioneered the field of stress research and provided convincing arguments that stress impacted health. But not all agreed with his physiological view of stress as a non-specific phenomenon though. What about psychological stress? (i.e.: loss of the beloved, frustration, tending to an ill child, or work problems)? Could these situations also be stressful? Many physicians, psychologists, and researchers thought so.
Over the next 30 years researchers conducted experiments showing that although the type of stressors resulting in the release of stress hormones are different for everyone there are common elements to situations that elevate stress hormones in everyone.
In essence, they discovered the recipe for stress: N.U.T.S.!