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.

Ancient wisdom

Making sense of and dealing with the challenges of life has been a foundation of religion and philosophy throughout history. The ancients referred to stress using terms like hardship, trial, tribulation, suffering, challenge, and opportunity; they tended to consider difficulty to be a natural part of life that affected everyone at all times, not a disease or an epidemic that only affected contemporary people.

The fundamental truth of Buddhism holds that life means suffering (Saunders, 1976). In other words, life is difficult. Suffering comes from attachment to transient desires. Suffering can be stopped by abandoning fleeting desires and following a path of self-improvement in mental development, ethical conduct, and wisdom. In Greece, Hippocrates proposed that disease is suffering and toil the body goes through as it fights to return to a normal state (Rosch, 1998). Stoic philosophy in ancient Greece argued that good people embrace the strengthening opportunities in hardship (Baltzly, 2009). Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Translated 1844) would say, “No tree stands firm and sturdy if it is not buffeted by constant wind; the very stresses that cause it to stiffen and fix its roots firmly.” The New Testament offered a Christian perspective that also sees adversity as a natural part of life: people should not only expect to suffer but should also rejoice to share the sufferings of the Christ (1 Peter 4). Trials test, sanctify, and perfect the believer (James 1:2-4). Mormonism would seem to echo the fundamental truth of Buddhism by teaching that everyone, including the good person, experiences adversity throughout life. Adversity provides an experience that refines and strengthens the individual, creating opportunities for perpetual growth. Overcoming adversity requires recognizing and appreciating growth opportunities, exercising faith in God, and serving God by serving others (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009).

Contrary to contemporary dogmas arguing that stress is a killer disease that must be eradicated, these philosophical and religious perspectives do not diminish the legitimate struggles people face. Instead, these perspectives seem to either influence or echo through early stress research and contemporary functional coping philosophies like resilience training, posttraumatic growth, inner-quality management, and others that will be presented as functional adaptability strategies.

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).

Psychosocial organisms

Contemporary discussions about stress started when the word “stress” jumped from the engineering field to psychology journals in the 1940s (Cooper & Dewe, 2004). Contemporary scientific exploration of stress began in the 1950s when Hanse Selye (1956) found predictable patterns in animal’s efforts to adapt when he exposed them to adverse stimuli like extreme temperature and radiation.

Walter Canon (1914), Han Selye (1956), and Harold Wolff separately explored how the body is a dynamic organism that responds to stimuli to maintain normal body functions and protect itself from the environment (Cooper & Dewe, 2004). Richard Lazarus (1991) would propose that attitudes, beliefs, and expectations influence how individuals perceive and are affected by stress. In the 1960s, researchers at the University of Michigan shifted the focus of stress research from physiological reactions to psychosocial factors in the workplace that affect employee stress (Cooper & Dewe, 2004; Jex, 2002). Beehr and Newman (1978) ignited interest in exploring occupational stress when they compiled a review of occupational stress literature in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Leonard Pearlin (1981) and others proposed a sociological framework for understanding how the demands of society influence the interpretation, response to, and consequences of stress.

Interest in and awareness of stress has since become fully mainstreamed in global politics, business, media, and popular culture. Each discipline and application seems to interpret and respond to stress differently, but the dominant contemporary framework tends to see stress as a killer disease.

Killer disease

The short history of stress research has failed to produce a standard definition for stress, let alone provide conclusive findings of the impact of stress (Cooper & Dewe, 2004; Jex, 2002; Schwarzer & Taubert, 2002). Regardless, lack of definition has not stopped a 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). For example:

  • The American Psychological Association declares that “stress is a major health problem” that threatens psychological and physical health, and that contributes to developing existential illnesses like heart disease, depression, and obesity (American Psychological Association, 2009).
  • The United Nations proclaims that stress is the epidemic of the century, while the World Health Organization promotes stress as a worldwide epidemic (Manzies, 2005).
  • Popular daytime television personality Dr. Oz (2008; Stress kills: The truth behind America’s #1 health crisis, 2009) laments that stress is not only the “#1 health crisis”, but also that “stress kills.”
  • A Google search on “stress” and “kill” returns a long list of articles and news items with titles like: “Why stress kills you,” “Kill stress before it kills you,” Why does stress kill?” “Don’t let stress silently kill you,” “Work-related stress can kill,” and, of course, a string of hits that begin with “Stress kills!”

The resounding message from government and non-government organizations, health professionals, consultants, gurus, marketers, media, special interest groups, con artists:

  • People should be stressed about stress.

  • Failure to reduce or eliminate stress will ensure sickness, misery, and death.

  • A key to a happy and fulfilling life is to avoid, reduce, and eliminate stressful situations and stress symptoms.

  • “Buy this product.” “Support this proposal.” “Join this group.” “Pass this law.” “Follow this philosophy.” “Take this pill.”

When viewed from a marketing standpoint, the stress-as-killer-disease pitch makes sense: the more people feel they are stressed and believe that stress will kill them, the more likely they are to seek help for the cure being pitched. MSNBC (2009) estimated that Americans spend more than 14 billion dollars a year on products peddled to relieve their stress; then advertises products intended to eliminate stress symptoms.[1] The American Psychological Association uses a similar marketing pitch, emphasizing that stress causes illness, saying: “For a healthy mind and body… talk to a psychologist” (American Psychological Association, 2009), with an associated “find a psychologist” link for generating leads for members (American Psychological Association, 2007).

Unfortunately, contemporary stress dialogs tend to focus on the negative aspects of stress while they barely acknowledge or completely ignore the benefits of stress. They tend to promote dysfunctional coping strategies that may enrich those who promote them but can limit the capacity of people to develop functional perspectives and practices that can allow them to cope in and adapt within a dynamic environment.

Higher life

From outside of the stress industry, general system theory helps to explain why the dysfunctional killer-disease perspectives should be balanced with functional adaptability perspectives by demonstrating that interdependent components work together to make a system more than its subsequent parts. In the dynamical social, economic, and ecological system in which humans exist, stress is not only a primary survival mechanism; it is also vital for the development of “higher life” (Bertalanffy, 1972, p. 192).

Chaos theory provides insight into the challenges of adaptability in increasingly complex environments by demonstrating how initial conditions can have a major influence on unfolding events within systems, making predictions a risky, if not impossible, process (Capra, 1996; Gleick, 2008). Understanding the dynamical nature of complex open systems helps to emphasize the importance of developing functional coping strategies that allow people to more effectively adapt with and influence the interacting factors in a dynamic environment to foster growth and wellness.


[1] The MSNBC approach to stress is interesting to consider because it is a good example of contemporary stress dialogs. Under the heading of “Stressed Out and Sick”, MSNBC shows a gasping ghostly figure next to a long list of how “Bad Stress” makes people sick: hair loss, depression, asthma, etc. Buried at the bottom of the image is a category called “Good Stress” that lists “fight-or-flight” and “short-term”. [See Image 2].


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