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Our 53rd Year

Plain Facts About Stress – An Interview with Hans Selye, Ph.D.

Q. Dr. Selye, is it true that there is more stress in today’s society than in years past?
A. People often ask me that question, sometimes comparing our lives with that of the caveman-who didn’t have to worry about the stock market or the atomic bomb. They forget that the caveman worried about being eaten by a bear while he was asleep, or about dying of hunger-things that few people worry much about today. In the end, I doubt whether people suffer more stress today; it’s just that they think they do.

Q. But isn’t everybody subject to stress?
A. That’s right. Few studies have been done that permit me to answer in strictly scientific terms, but as far as I can tell from talking to diverse groups, from businessmen to air-traffic controllers, everybody thinks he is under the greatest stress. The truth is that everybody is under stress, because-and this may be shocking to take-if you really managed to avoid stress completely, you would be dead.

Q. Then stress is a normal state of affairs?
A. Yes, and it’s important that people understand what they are talking about when they speak about stress. Whenever people experience something unpleasant, for lack of a better word they say they are under stress. Yet there is such a thing as pleasant stress-as in the case of the Olympic winner at the moment of his glory, or a conductor as his orchestra performs particularly well. They are radiating excitement, and they are secreting all the stress hormones exactly the same as if they had just heard of a death in the family. We call the pleasant or healthy kind “eustress,” the unhealthy kind “distress.”

Q. So what exactly is stress?
A. In simple medical terms, I define stress as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand. Under stress of any kind, man reacts in a certain chemical way. The endocrines, such as the pituitary located just under the brain, produce a hormone which, in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands. The thing for the average person to remember is that all the demands you make-whether on your brain or your liver or your muscles or your bones-cause stress. For example, stress can even occur under deep anesthesia, when your emotions are not engaged.

Q. How can you tell when someone is under stress?
A. There are two ways. One, not accessible to the public, is biochemical and neurological-measuring blood pressure, hormone levels, the electric activity of the brain, and so on. But there are other indices that anyone can judge. No two people react the same way, but the usual responses are an increase in pulse rate and an increased tendency to sweat. You will also become more irritable, less capable of concentrating and have an increased desire to move about. I was just talking with a businessman who asked if he could walk back and forth because he couldn’t think well sitting down. That is a stress symptom everyone will know.

Q. What are the more frequent causes of distress?
A. One cannot generalize. They differ in various civilizations and historical periods. At certain times, pestilence and hunger were the predominant causes. Another, then and now, is warfare or the fear of war. At the moment, I would say the most frequent causes of distress in man are psychological-that is to say, lack of adaptability, not having a code of behavior. One reason for this is that the satisfaction of religious codes has diminished in importance for mankind. So has the idea of being loyal to your monarch or leader. Even the satisfaction of accumulating dollars has been diminished by inflation. The problem was well expressed four centuries ago by my favorite French author, Montaigne, who said: “No wind blows in favor of the ship that has no port of destination.”

Q. Does excessive stress do any harm?
A. By all means. For instance, you can be bothered by your mother-in-law or your boss to the point where you suffer continuously, until you have gastric ulcers and hypertension and all the rest. When people say “it gives me an ulcer” or it’s “a pain in the neck” to do certain things, it’s not just a way of talking. It actually does happen. Those are only the most obvious, general results. But chronic exposure to stress over a long time may cause serious diseases. Among these are high blood pressure, heart incidents, mental breakdown-the typical stress diseases, we call them.

Q. Then stress can actually shorten your life?
A. Very much so. What we call aging is the sum total of all the scars left by the stress of life. These scars, in the medical sense, are not only lines in your skin but can be chemical or mental, doing irreparable damage. It’s why people say, “you shouldn’t burn the candle at both ends”-unless you enjoy so much having double the light that you’re willing to pay the price.

Q. So stress is basically bad for you, isn’t it?
A. Not necessarily. It’s the same as saying, “John is running a temperature.” Well, who isn’t? What you mean is that John is running too high a temperature. This brings us to two important words-“hyperstress,” or too much stress, and “hypostress,” or not enough. Both words are relative. For me, it may not be enough; for you, it may be too much. But it is inconceivable that anyone should have no stress at all. Most people who are ambitious and want to accomplish something live on stress. They need it. I like to use examples from the animal world, because there is a biological basis for what I say. I am not moralizing or preaching. If you take a turtle and force it to run as fast as a racehorse, you will kill it. So it’s useless to say to a turtle-type human that he must accomplish this because his father was famous and his grandfather before that. If he hasn’t got it, leave him alone. You can’t make a racehorse out of a turtle. But the reverse is also true. If you are the racehorse type, as most efficient business executives are, you have the urge to do many things and to express yourself. If you are told not to do anything, you are under terrible distress.

Q. How can people cope with stress?
A. The secret is not to avoid stress but to “do your own thing.” That is an expression to which I fully subscribe. It implies doing what you like to do and what you were made to do, at your own rate.

Hans Selye, M.D., (1907-1982), Vienna-born, taught at the University of Montreal for 32 years. He was a pioneer in stress research, known as the “father of the stress hypothesis” which laid the foundation for mind/body medicine. His monumental work Stress (The Physiology and Pathology of Systemic Stress), published in 1950, opened new vistas in medical science. He authored many other books, including Stress Without Distress, published in 1974, still considered a classic worldwide.