Monday, March 14, 2016

Soldier's Heart, Shell Shock, and....Stress?

“How are you?”

“Good, but stressed.”

It’s a pattern I find myself in again and again, and it’s particularly relevant as college students wrap up midterms and move into the second part of the semester. Stress seems to be a constant condition for many today, and luckily, resources are available to learn how to manage stress. Stressed one hundred years ago? Society (and physicians) may not have been helpful at all.


The American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” report came out last week, and represents a decade of tracking stress in the lives of Americans. The report is an acknowledgement that physical, mental, and emotional stress is a real problem that hurts people. Civil War era doctors called stress ‘soldier’s heart.’ World War I era doctors coined stress as ‘shell shock,’ even when diagnosing civilians. In general, doctors of yesteryear did not consider stress to be an issue that could lead to further health issues.

Hans Selye led the field in studies of stress beginning in the late 1930s. Selye was born in Slovakia, studied in Prague, and lived in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the United States, and Canada – truly an international scholar. As a medical researcher in Toronto, Selye discovered that the rats that he used in his experiments appeared to be dying from stress and not the hormones he injected. Selye looked at this phenomenon closely and published an obscure study about his findings.

Despite the minute attention paid to his research, Selye perservered. He noticed that many people suffering from different ailments shared similar or identical symptoms. This led to Selye’s discovery of General Adaptation Syndrome, which shows how stress can lead to hormonal changes, which can lead to other problems, such as ulcers, arthritis, cancer, and allergies, among others. In other words, Selye found that frequent or constant activation of the fight-or-flight response network in a person's body can lead to physical complications. This theory gained ground after several decades of research. A 1983 TIME Magazine cover story explores the cycle of shock, alarm, and eventually, exhaustion that stress causes.

Selye’s creative genius is not so much in his discovery as it is in his paradigm shift. Selye explored stress as a medical issue instead of merely an accepted part of life. Selye identified stress as a problem and explored it in search of solutions. No one else had ever researched general stress as a problem that could require a scientific solution. Always the prolific writer, Selye would certainly fit Gardner’s standards of creative; Selye published over 40 books and 1,700 articles in his lifetime (to say he was prolific is an understatement!).
A graphic from TIME tracking Selye's analyses of stress in the human body (6 June 1983)
Selye’s research is notable also because it triggered a new field of research in ‘stress science.’ The conceptual change Selye led gave room for scientists in similar fields to relate their research to human stress. Some of Selye’s theories have since been proved incorrect, but one should still note the expansion of the medical domain that resulted from Selye’s research. As Dr. Paul Rosch wrote for the American Institute of Stress, Selye’s “real legacy can be summed up by what he often reminded me: theories don’t have to be correct – only facts do.” Selye refused to ignore the hidden roots of disease and found a new medical field through which to theorize.

Interested in learning more about Hans Selye and stress? Check out these links:
Hans Selye, The American Institute of Stress 
Time Vault - Stress: Can We Cope? (1983)
TIME: Meet the Doctor Who Changed Our Understanding of Stress

1 comment:

  1. This post makes me think of all of the other things that went misdiagnosed or diagnosed before our modern conception of things, as well as the nature of pathology itself. I really liked that you pointed out that this is a *creative* problem. We don't usually tend to think of medicine and diagnoses as creative, but it was the sense of "problem finding" that set Selye apart. I wonder if this might lead to creative findings in ways to cope with stress, or ways to make our current surroundings less stressful. Great post and thoughtful ideas!


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