In a recent FASEBeditorial, Gerald Weissmann comments on the modern use of the word ‘stress’ and its evolution from Hans Selye’s original definition.
According to Weissmann, the Editor-in-Chief of the FASEB journal, Selye first advanced the notion of stress as a generalized response to any insult in 1936, which ultimately led to the investigation of stress hormones as treatments for a variety of conditions.
Weissmann argues that Hans Selye pursued two careers – experimental pathology and public relations, and he was a success at both. In the 1940s and 1950s Selye began to promote ‘stress’ as “the major cause, mode of transmission and treatment of most human ills, be they mental or physical.” By the 1950s, stress was linked to herpes and whooping cough, cancer, and the common cold. This also includes high blood pressure, peptic ulceration and coronary thrombosis (New Scientist, 12 Nov. 1959).
As per Weissmann, stress is a ‘top banana’. Thus, according to the American Institute of Stress, stress is America’s #1 health problem. Moreover, in the 1990s the World Health Organization called the stress of everyday life “a worldwide epidemic.”
The publicization of the scientific term ‘stress’ set the stage for the modern everyday inculpation of “stress”, be it in terms of established psychological responses to life-threatening situations (PTSD) or in frivolous displays of celebrity angst.
Weissmann adroitly juxtaposes the experiences of American soldiers returned from Iraq and the news coverage of heiress Paris Hilton’s hyped up jail sentence, described by her as “traumatic”, thus highlighting the incongruity between the popularized and the scientific versions of ‘stress’.
Weissmann concludes stating that “when we eventually understand the biology of the stress syndromes, we’ll have Hans Selye, the experimental pathologist, to thank”.