More than 50 years ago Hans Selye, a Canadian endocrinologist, defined stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand.” In laboratory experiments, Selye exposed rats to a variety of noxious chemicals and extreme environmental conditions that he labeled “demands.” The environmental demands included freezing temperatures, constant light, deafening noise, and nonstop exercise via motor-driven treadmills and constant swimming to avoid drowning. Selye found that when these demands threw the rats’ normal operating systems (respiration, circulation, digestion, and temperature regulation) too far out of their normal range of functioning, they adjusted by initiating a complex pattern of physiological changes that he called the “stress response.” Not only did the rats initiate this life-saving response, but the response was the same regardless of the type of demand that triggered it. Selye called this phenomenon the “nonspecific response to any demand.” Besides rats, Selye replicated the response with mice, rabbits, dogs, cats, and other laboratory animals. The nonspecificity of the response to any demand was the key factor in the development of Selye’s stress theory.
What Are Stressors?
Researchers since Selye often refer to demands as stressors. Stressors are the people, things, and situations that create unusual or excessive demands on people, leaving them feeling threatened and unable to cope. Most people suffer from social stressors associated with work, school, relationships, family life, and world events rather than extreme environmental demands like those created by Selye in the laboratory.
Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, pioneers in the study of life events and their link to stress, identified a relationship between stressful occurrences and susceptibility to illness. They examined the past medical records of their subjects and discovered that the development of serious illnesses often followed major life changes. They used the term life events to refer to these life-changing experiences. Some of these events were positive (eustress)—marriage, the birth of a child, a new job—while others were negative (distress)—the death of a loved one, the loss of a job.
Holmes and Rahe found that exposure to these positive and negative life events throws the body’s systems out of balance, triggering the stress response. Like Selye, they believed that the stress response was the body’s way of readjusting to stressors. Additionally, they believed that the body had a finite amount of energy available to make these readjustments to adapt to stressors. Exposure to too many life events in a short a period of time increased one’s risk for the development of disease.
The Role of Perception in Stressors
In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers in the field of cognitive psychology took issue with the notion of the comparability of eustress and distress. They also questioned the belief that the life events identified by Holmes and Rahe were universal stressors for everyone under all circumstances.
Richard Lazarus, a pioneer in this research, found that people responded to life events differently, depending on how they perceived them and on their ability to cope with them. Lazarus and his colleague Susan Folkman established that some subjects perceived life events such as divorce as very stressful, while others didn’t view them as stressful at all. Such events are stressful only if people appraise them as threatening and feel unable to cope with them. Until that determination, life events and other demands are potential stressors.
Threat implies a state of anticipating a confrontation with a harmful condition. Whether the stressor is real or imagined is immaterial. One’s perception of the threat associated with the potential stressor determines whether or not it becomes an actual stressor that triggers a stress response. One’s perceived ability to cope with the potential stressor plays a key role in determining how threatening it is. If one feels that he or she can cope with a potential stressor, regardless of how threatening it might actually be, it is not very likely to turn into an actual stressor.
Another key element of the stress appraisal process is that it is always influenced by space and time. One may evaluate the same potential stressor differently the next time exposure occurs. Not only will the context be different (different time and different circumstances), but so will be the person (a little older and wiser, maybe more rested, perhaps traveling home from a wonderful vacation).
A New Way of Looking at Stressors
A key aspect of viewing stress as a transaction is the process of appraising the threat posed by potential stressors. Viewing stressors as potential stressors instead of actual stressors reduces their ability to trigger a stress response. This subtle language shift reaffirms the principle that demands are not inherently or universally stressful for everyone under all circumstances. Potential stressors must be transformed by individuals into actual stressors. Essentially, they are neutral until perceived as threatening and beyond one’s ability to cope with them.
This is a quantum leap from the outdated belief that certain demands (divorce, marriage, loss of job, starting a new job) are inherently stressful for everyone, under all circumstances. The major implication of viewing demands as potential stressors instead of actual stressors is empowerment. Understanding stressors as having the potential to cause stress leads to the realization that stress is no longer something that just happens and is beyond one’s control. Stressors become more than just “bills” or “traffic” or “the government.” They transform into demands that people can play an active role in understanding and managing. This empowerment means that the progression from potential stressor to stress response need not happen automatically. Coping with stress thus begins with viewing demands as potential stressors and understanding that the leap from potential stressor to stress response is not automatic.
- Blonna, Richard. 2007. Coping with Stress in a Changing World. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Holmes, Thomas H. and Richard H. Rahe. 1967. “The Social Readjustment Rating Scale.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 11:213.
- Lazarus, Richard S. 1999. Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis. New York: Springer.
- Lazarus, Richard S. and Susan Folkman. 1984. Stress Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer.
- Selye, Hans. 1978. The Stress of Life. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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