The short history of stress research has failed to produce a standard definition of stress, let alone provide conclusive findings of the impact of stress (Cooper & Dewe, 2004; Jex, 2002). However, lack of definition and findings has not stopped a seemingly obsessive lamenting among governments, NGO’s, media pundits, management gurus, special interest groups, and the general population about stress being the killer disease of modern times (Manzies, 2005; Oz, 2009). Almost unnoticed in declarations about stress being the killer disease of the century are the following essential points.
In fewer than 50 years, stress went from Selye’s “salt of life” (1956) to global killer disease (Manzies, 2005; Oz, 2009), and it still lacks a definition. The different perspectives on stress fall into four basic categories: response-based, stimulus-based, cognitive-transactional, and dynamical systems. These perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Viewing stress through only one of the perspectives provides an incomplete picture that limits adaptability. Still, the dynamical systems perspective seems to provide improved understanding by integrating elements of the other perspectives.
Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" is an archetypal image that Westerners associate with Japan. But, more than a picture of waves threatening to devour fishermen as Mt. Fuji looks on, a closer look illuminates key concepts in chaos theory that Western science did not “discover” until recently while offering timeless lessons for fostering adaptability and growth in turbulence.
General systems theory provides a critical perspective that is missing from contemporary stress dogma, offers some insights into why contemporary society seems to be increasingly unable to cope with reality, and suggests functional adaptability strategies that foster growth and wellness.
Academic discussions on the history of stress tend to start with Walter Cannon’s 1914 study of how emotions influence illness or with Han Selye’s 1950s proposal of a three-stage general adaptation syndrome through which people cope with daily life. Although social science, business, media, and global governance organizations might be able to share some credit for the global obsession with the “the disease of our times” (Manzies, 2005, p. 59), the concepts and terms around stress research have evolved over centuries. Stress is hardly unique to modern humans.
Have you ever tried to tell a punchline without telling the joke? The results are rarely what the aspiring comic expects. The same thing happens with people and organizations who attempt to take action, implement tactics, live life without a mission. When nobody gets it, the question becomes not “what is the joke?” but “who is the joke?”
A problem with understanding stress is it is so subjective that it “defies definition” (American Institute of Stress, n.d.) [para. 2], thus is difficult to measure. “Stress” means different things to different people, and different people respond differently to stressors or stressful situations. Despite a missing definition, sufficient information exists to provide an understanding of how to tap stress as a productive force for human development. This section will explore definitions of stress through the history of contemporary stress research to identify and understand sources of dysfunctional coping strategies and to lay a foundation for building functional adaptability strategies.