On the Abstraction of Stress

The different understandings of what constitutes stress arise from the fact that ‘stress’ is, ultimately, an abstract concept with no precise point of reference in the physical world. Because we cannot see, hear, touch, feel or smell stress, it is always going to be difficult to imagine what stress could be like, let alone define

A common incorrect assumption often made about abstract concepts is that if a word exists, then what it describes must exist.

An acceptance of the validity of the concept of ‘stress’ invariably has implications for the way we deal with what we perceive to be happening.

With no physical point of reference, it is often left to our imagination and creativity to decide what the abstract world is made of.

About theories

The chapter on the historical perspective of the ‘stress’ concept has, amongst other things, already demonstrated the reasonable novelty of the stress concept.

Hans Selye’s theory

"Here is a revolutionary new concept of mental and physical illness, explained by its discoverer. This startling new theory of disease may be the most important and far-reaching idea in the history of medicine. It has often been compared with the contributions of Pasteur, Ehrlich and Freud. Hans Selye has been acclaimed throughout the world by scientists, physicians, and psychologists for his brilliant exposition of the stress theory. Here, in language easily understood by the general reader, the man who has been called ‘the Einstein of medicine’ explains his modern concept."

This rather grandiose claim on the book jacket of The Stress of Life (1956) was to mark the official arrival in the public arena of the ‘stress’ concept.

Selye seemed to have developed the concept of ‘stressor’ as a means to eradicate the confusion that had existed with the various understandings of what constituted ‘stress’. Selye was partly to blame for the confusion by settling on the term ‘stress’ for his theory in the first place. Stress, in engineering terms, described what Selye would later call a ‘stressor’, whereas ‘strain’, the effect of stress, was what he termed ‘stress’.

Selye’s various pronouncements render the task of understanding where he stood with regard to psychological stress somewhat difficult. Selye, it seems, was prepared to accept most definitions of stress that were offered. This may have been caused by his obvious pride at the amount of research his concept had generated.

Looking back at the progression of Selye’s theory, it is littered with changes of mind and contradictions. At first, the GAS was the centre piece of his theory. . The first mention of stress was as a cause of the GAS. Gradually, following rather messy attempts at explaining the relationship between the GAS and stress, the GAS disappears for his writings. By then, stress has become not the cause but the state.

Other theories

Transactional model

The notion of ‘coping’ brings with it many other problems. Coping denotes some amount of success with a situation. Conversely, an inability to cope brings thoughts of failure, loss of control and sometimes despair. Under the transactional model, an individual who perceives an event as ‘stressful’ or as a ‘stressor’ is expected to cope.

The concept of ‘coping’ has also led to the introduction of a concept of ‘hardiness’. Some researchers who had believed not only in stress but also in its inevitability seemed to have decided, after observing that some people did not react ‘stressfully’ when most people did, that these people were somehow more hardy; that is more resistant to stress

Lazarus has, in fact, gone full circle. Having originally adapted Arnold’s notion of ‘appraisal’ in emotions to stress, he proposed in a later publication, that we should think of stress as a subset of emotions. Emotions, he believed then, were far more useful in understanding what the person went through, as each emotion was often distinct enough and represented a different experience

Work stress

Albrecht expresses little doubt. “It is indeed a fact of life for twentieth-century Americans that stress can kill.” In a rather perplexing admission, however, he reveals that stress is also a physical and chemical process within the body and that it is entirely normal to our functioning as living creatures.

There was worse to come for those “stressed beyond their limits”. Albrecht suggests that they may choose insanity as a means of escape. “They go crazy in order to drop out of the terrifying, unrewarding, hateful, stressful microworld in which they have been living. There is certain peace in insanity.” Finally, suicide, he suggests, provided the ultimate in stress reduction.

On Physical and Psychological Stressors

It appears that biologists need to approach the problem of defining ‘stress’ more seriously than they seem to have done. There are two reasons for this. The first is that if experiments measure the effects of implied psychological stress, a psychological and not a physical label should be given.

Many results based on experiments involving physical ‘stressors’ are often generalised to unrelated psychological situations and in doing so give the erroneous impression that an overwhelming body of evidence supports the legitimacy and validity of the ‘stress’ concept. Furthermore, because evidence of the effects of stress seems to have come from many diverse and respected scientific areas such as medicine, biology, psychiatry, and psychology, this has helped reinforce the illusion that ‘stress’ is a legitimate scientific concept.

In certain situations, the physical and the psychological may be difficult to separate. Taking sickness as an example, a distinction needs to be made between ‘being sick’ and ‘feeling sick'

On the Physiological Evidence of Stress

In experiments that use animals, we need to ask whether an animal is capable of making the distinction between a pleasant sound and an unpleasant one and whether if it could, its appreciation of either would be the same as ours.

Sleep deprivation, electric shock, rotation, immersion in cold water, excessive heat and flickering of light for long periods of time would seem to only occur for human beings in extreme situations that are relatively rarely encountered by most. In fact, if we add to this list restraint and isolation, these ‘stressors’ would seem to belong in types of incarceration where physical torture and psychological cruelty were being practised.

People feel ‘stressed’ because they believe in the first place that feeling ‘stressed’ is a legitimate condition. Without such a belief, the subjective feeling is not possible. Nevertheless, in everyday language, feelings of being ‘stressed’ often appear to supplant the use of emotion terms. Instead of feeling ‘annoyed’, ‘worried’, ‘apprehensive’ or ‘frustrated’, people seem more likely to declare that they are feeling ‘stressed’ even though it does not necessarily accurately describe to themselves and others what they feel.

The same is true about physiological responses and feeling ‘stressed’. All that can be said legitimately is that a feeling of being ‘stressed’ was correlated with certain physiological responses but we cannot say that stress itself was present as a condition.

I have demonstrated that there are serious problems demonstrating the physiological effects of stress. On the one hand, many events or situations that have been hypothesised to represent examples of stress may not necessarily be so. On the other hand, the responses that have been theorised as being those of stress are not always necessarily so. Difficult to measure reliably and influenced by other factors, these responses have not been conclusively proven to be ‘stress responses’.

On the Connection Between Stress and Diseases

The link with disease is vital if stress is to be considered as an important subject of scientific evaluation. Had stress been understood to be simply a succession of worrying, frustrating, annoying, unwelcome or generally unpleasant short term challenges with little long term consequences, it is highly unlikely that the concept would have enjoyed the recognition and popularity that it has.

Selye, despite his admission that we knew “very little about the possible relationship between stress and cancer”, speculated that stress and cancer were related essentially in three ways. He proposed that cancer could produce considerable stress in patients, stress could cause or aggravate cancer, and stress could inhibit or even prevent cancer.

A few years later, Rosch appeared to have changed his mind, lamenting that:
"Unfortunately, some pop psychologists and self-help zealots have gone overboard, by implying that certain types of cancer are usually stress related. Nothing could be crueler than adding to the stress and guilt of cancer patients by insinuating that their illness, or failure to improve with treatment is due to some deficiency in their character."

Again, there is no direct evidence of stress, in the guise of ‘modern life’ or of its more specific ‘stressors’, being the cause of heart disease. There is much anecdotal evidence, much speculation and assumptions but little proof.

There is no evidence to support the view that stress causes disease. To invoke the much weaker position that stress is a co-factor or a contributing factor may be an attempt to hide the lack of evidence by confounding stress with other factors. This is reminiscent of many ‘miracle’ dieting products that guarantee that the product offered will help you lose weight as long as you follow a carefully controlled diet and exercise regularly. Those who do so will never know how much weight they would have lost without the product.

Published in Australia
by Ipsilon Publishing
10 Sellicks Beach Rd
Sellicks Beach SA 5174
South Australia
Phone 61 88556 3939

Publication Date May, 2000
$27.45 AU includes GST
ISBN 0646393707

Published in the US by
Science & HumanitiesPress
PO Box 7151
Chesterfield MO 63006-7151
(636) 394-4950
Psychologist Serge Doublet, PhD. debunks 'stress' by reviewing the whole story
ISBN: 1-888725-36-2 $24.95
check cart /check out
or check outPublication date, June, 2000
286 pp. includes index, $24.95 US
Table of Contents
ISBN 1-888725-36-2

Biography of Serge Doublet
E-mail Serge Doublet
Definitions of Stress
Causes of Stress
Bibliography on Stress
Highlights of The Stress Myth
Table of Contents The Stress Myth
The Stress Myth- Home page
website - stressmyth.com
Science & Humanities Press - US Edition
Ipsilon Publishing - Australian Edition
MacroPrint Books
BeachHouse Books
Heuristic Books
Growing up on Route 66
Banis & Associates