21 Apr

Selye — the founder of stress research

Medical research into the phenomenon of stress began on the battlefield, where the devastating effects of chronic stress are unmistakable. The great Harvard physiologist, Dr Walter Cannon, along with Dr Hans Selye, the father of modern stress research, proved that psychological strain itself could cause dramatic hormonal changes and hence physical symptoms.

Selye showed that when the ‘fight or flight’ response becomes chronic, as it does in battle, long-term chemical changes occur, leading to high blood pressure, an increased rate of arteriosclerosis and depression of the immune system.

Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale

American social researchers Holmes and Rahe, working in the 1940s, devised a stress scale. At the top is the death of a spouse (100 stress points), followed by a divorce (73 points), marriage separation (65), imprisonment (63) and death of a close family member (63).

But not all stressful events are unpleasant. Marriage rates 50 points, pregnancy 40, buying a house 31 and even Christmas accounts for 12. The impact of major life events on stress has been confirmed many times.

A study published by the British medical journal The Lancet reported that the incidence of fatal heart attacks rose sharply in Athens in the days following the 1981 earthquake. And a high score on the Holmes-Rahe scale is linked to elevated levels of the hormones linked with stress — adrenaline, noradrenaline and beta-endorphin. Furthermore, an Australian study on bereavement has shown that eight weeks after the death of a spouse, widows and widowers have reduced immunal responses, leaving them more vulnerable to infection and cancer. This often takes the form of abdominal or pelvic pain. One of the most common aspects of the history of chronic pain patients not on the litigation merry-go round, has been found to be the loss of a loved one or close relative in the twelve months or so prior to the onset of the chronic pain problem.

The poem by Charles Bukowski is revealing: ‘It’s not the large things that send a man to the madhouse . . .no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to the madhouse not the death of his love but a shoelace that snaps with no time left . . . ‘

The ‘snapped shoelace’ syndrome ties in with several recent studies. For example, police sergeants in Houston,Texas, found paper-pushing more irksome than physical danger. Teachers ranked administrative details second only to dissatisfaction with pay. Air traffic controllers, whose high rate of hypertension and ulcers have been attributed to job pressure, complained more about such mundane matters as management, shift schedules and ‘irrelevant’ chores than the strain of guiding heavy air traffic. Loss of employment has a similar ‘ripple’ effect. The greatest source of stress is not losing the job; rather it is the gradual domestic and psychological changes it imposes.


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