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Biological mechanics

Cooper and Dewe (2004) proposed two interrelated historical themes that have influenced the contemporary understanding of stress.

  • First, the origins of modern stress concepts can be found in historical attempts to understand how nonphysical phenomena affect physical health using terms like hysteria, nerves, worry, mental strain, and tension.
  • Second, the conditions result from the demands life places on individuals and can lead to psychological or physical disease.

In the 17th Century, Robert Hooke equated the stress placed on load-bearing structures to the stress placed on biological, social, and psychological systems. His analogy assumed that, like a machine, the human wears out when stressed and that the energy provided to the body will determine how well it will perform (Cooper & Dewe, 2004). Hooke also emphasized the importance of elasticity to explain how systems resume their original form after being stretched or compressed by an external force (American Institute of Stress, n.d.). Also, in the 17th Century, Descartes proposed that the body and mind are interrelated. In the 18th Century, social commentators observed that a quickening pace of life was affecting health, while scientists proposed that many diseases were due to psychological conditions.

In the 19th Century, George Beard suggested that the demands of a quickening pace of life cause “neurasthenia,” a short circuit of the nervous system or nervous exhaustion. The idea that strain could cause disease became a “ritualistic belief” in the 19th Century (Cooper & Dewe, 2004). Also, in the 19th Century, Claude Bernard laid the foundation for a contemporary understanding of homeostasis when he introduced the idea that the internal environment of living organisms must remain consistent in response to changes in the external environment. Bernard marveled over the mechanical nature of the organism, proposing that understanding the organism is the same as understanding a machine; understanding the parts leads to understanding the system (Capra, 1996). This reductionist or mechanical perspective began to be challenged in the late 19th century with the introduction of the three founding forms of psychology: consciousness, unconsciousness, and adaptation (Cooper & Dewe, 2004).

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