Early Discoveries of Stress

As humans became self-reflective, they opened new pathways to consciously pay attention to what was happening within their own minds and bodies and searched for interventions that could enhance their survival beyond what the primitive brain was able to do. One early discovery regarding the connection between stress and illness was achieved by Galen, a Greek physician, who observed that discovered women who were melancholy tended do develop breast cancer more often than did women who exhibited a happier countenance (as cited in Sawhney, 2001, para. 24).

Centuries later, Harvard physiologist Cannon (1914/1967) defined the fight-or-flight syndrome as the set of physiological reactions that are triggered by stress, which include

Respiration deepens, the heart beats more rapidly, the arterial pressure rises, the blood is shifted away from the stomach and intestines to the heart and central nervous system and the muscles, and sugar is freed from the reserves of the liver. The key to these marvelous transformations in the body is found in relating them to the natural accompaniments of fear and rage—running away in order to escape from danger, and attacking in order to be dominant. (p. 227)

Cannon further argued that severe stress could cause sudden death through ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest, based on his studies of deaths triggered by voodoo (as cited in Sternberg, 2002).

Swiss physiologist, Hess (1957) coined the term ergotropic responses to refer to emergency reactions wherein the hypothalamic response is triggered. The result is an amplification of cortical, skeletal muscle, and sympathetic activation. “Hess demonstrated a response whose physiologic changes were similar to those measured during the practice of meditation, that is, a response opposite to the fight-or-flight response” (Benson, 1976, p. 73). This physiologic change described by Hess is termed the relaxation response.

Forty years following Cannon’s (1914/1967) discoveries regarding the fight/flight response, Seyle (1956) researched Cannon’s work and defined the general adaptation response, which describes a three-phase process of how animals react to stress. Nearly a decade later, contributors to research in this stress response and relaxation response included Rahe, Meyer, Smith, Kjaer, and Holmes (1964), who measured the correlation between stress and illness, which supported the findings of Galen nearly 1,700 years earlier.

An attempt to quantify the impact of stress on morbidity and mortality emerged with the Holmes and Rahe Schedule of Recent Experiences. This inventory gives scores for various life events (e.g., job change, divorce, moving, illness). The respond indicates everything they have experienced with the past year. The total score indicates the stress level of the individual (as cited in Jacobs, 2001). Rahe et al. (1964) determined that stressful life events were associated with “sudden cardiac death, pregnancy and birth complications, diabetes, and overall susceptibility to illness” (as cited in Jacobs, p. S-85). Chrousos and Gold (1992) added that stress often is responsible for autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal disorders, coronary heart disease, chronic pain, and mental disorders. The various studies have indicated that overactivation of the fight-or-flight response (and suppression of immune and other functions) is typically responsible for these effects.