Stress Test: What We’ve Learned from Stress Research in 80 Years

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Stress Test: What We’ve Learned from Stress Research in 80 Years

Stress Test is a series about the science behind our busy lives and how stress affects our bodies. The biweekly column uncovers the latest research and explains how to put it to use in a practical way. Look for the science behind epigenetic markers of stress, mindfulness, meditation and deep brain stimulation.


The first scientific publication to document “stress” came out in 1936 — more than 80 years ago. Several researchers from the University of California at Irvine, Japan and Slovakia teamed up earlier this year to unpack the publication and figure out what we’ve learned about stress during the last few decades. They published their findings in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design in late June.

They found that although stress research has grown dramatically across several disciplines in the past few decades, early research in the 1930s began to make connections between stress and gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers. Scientists also understood positive and negative forms of stress by the 1970s. What scientists need to know now, they argue, is exactly how stress works at the molecular level, and how we can prevent and manage stress in our busy lives.

The most recent study — as well as others that have investigated the 1936 paper — provides a few tips for stress-related situations and diseases.

1. Stress definitely affects our bodies.

In the original 1930s research, 29-year-old Hans Selye of of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, experimented on rats that were exposed to severe stress and saw during autopsies that three major changes occurred. Their adrenal glands that produced extra adrenaline enlarged, their lymph nodes that protect the immune system shrank, and their stomachs filled with ulcers. He called this the “stress triad.” Essentially, excess adrenaline and steroids released from our body — also that dreaded cortisol — make us tired, fat and sick.

2. Stress comes in good and bad forms.

You probably heard about “eustress” and “distress” in health or P.E. classes in middle school, along with lessons about self-esteem and sex education. The words sound clinical and stale to us now, but Selye concluded after a long career in experimental medicine that we experience both unpleasant stressors as well as rewarding stressors. He introduced the terms in 1974, as well as his last definition of stress as the “nonspecific response of the body on any demand on it.” Essentially, our adrenal glands may not recognize the difference between good and bad stress, but our brain does, and it controls how our body responds.

3. Scientists are still trying to understand it.

Some of Selye’s students began focusing on stomach ulcers associated with stress and how to prevent and treat them. Dopamine, a naturally-occurring feel-good chemical in the body, can heal or prevent these ulcers, researchers later found. In addition, new drugs being tested by researchers today may help, the current study authors wrote in June.

Stress research has also wavered over the years. The 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine, for example, uncovered the association between H. pylori bacteria and peptic ulcers. Studies since then have found that both stress and bacteria can cause ulcers either together or alone, and now researchers wonder how stress and bacteria such as H. pylori interact, according to a Journal of Endocrinology article from March.

4. Stress-related diseases are on the upswing.

Selye characterized the first human “stress ulcers” during the 1943 air-raids in London during World War II. In the past decade in particular, stress has been associated with other major gastric diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease.

It’s hitting our pockets as well. The stress management industry makes up about $18 billion each year in the United States alone in wellness products, luxury relaxation services and stress prevention classes. As some doctors put it, stress is the new fat — a preventable but common and growing concern across the globe.

5. Researchers are looking for new ways to manage stress — or turn the bad kind into the good kind.

The American Institute of Stress, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, International Stress Management Association and Global Organization for Stress, for example, are all working on new research and coping strategies to reduce our levels of stress. These organizations often collaborate with and fund the researchers at U.S. universities who are looking at the latest with stress management techniques, stress ulcers and the latest developments in stress-related autoimmune diseases.

Even Selye thought his original line of research was important and had far to go. During his career, he wrote more than 1,500 original and review articles, authored 32 books and trained 40 doctoral students. As he said, “Stress in heath and disease is medically, sociologically, and philosophically the most meaningful subject for humanity that I can think of.”

Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.

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