Hustle and bustle

The hustle and bustle of New York. © Fotolia

Without soldiers at war and rats in laboratories, we wouldn’t have our modern concept of stress – nor would we feel ‘stressed’ either. But then according to recent research, stress is supposed to be healthy. By Urs Hafner

The popularity of a concept – its rise, its spread and then its eventual and inevitable decline – also says something about the collective mental disposition that makes use of it. For example, take the German concept ‘Waldsterben’ – ‘forest dieback’ – which today serves as a testament to the power of the media and to the public hysteria of the 1980s. But we can go beyond this simplistic analysis. Even if the forests didn’t ‘die back’ to the drastic extent that was feared at the time, the use of the word demonstrates that there was great concern about the destruction of basic aspects of our existence – and that concern was hardly unfounded. The forest, as a kind of natural ‘place of yearning’, acted as a magnet for collective fears during the era of the atom bomb when many felt that the apocalypse was imminent.

Today, ‘stress’ is a terminological front-runner. It’s almost the done thing to feel ‘stressed’ and to fight it – with yoga, for example. Stress is regarded as unhealthy and a cause of illness. Whoever feels stressed today testifies to the fact that he or she is heavily in demand and very busy. ‘Stress’ is a symptom of our time, a time that tells us from kindergarten onwards that we’re in a struggle for survival (“You’ll see, life isn’t a bed of roses”, we’re told early on). The superlative of ‘stress’ is the related word ‘burnout’. This illness is socially acceptable today, unlike depression. A man who has a burnout has temporarily broken down, primarily because too much has been demanded of him, not because he himself has failed in any way. He is the victim of a world of work that has run amok, as it were. But at the end of the day he’s a high-class victim; when we take a road worker suffering from exhaustion, we no longer talk about ‘burnout’. He simply has the physical (or perhaps psychosomatic) symptoms of backache.

In the sociological diagnosis of our times, legion are the findings about the increasing pace of life, the diminishing sense of solidarity and the increasing degree of flexibility and individualisation that have all been characteristic of our society since the 1990s. Richard Sennett, Axel Honneth and Alain Ehrenberg, for example, draw a picture of a society characterised by a dynamic, aggressive capitalism in which there is an increasing pressure placed upon the individual, primarily the individual who possesses little economic, social or cultural capital. In this sense, the current discourse about ‘constant stress’ is determined not just by the endeavours of the ‘stressed’ to prove their undiminished competitiveness, but also by a general unease about living in a society that places ‘achieving’ above everything else, and that has no place for those who cannot meet the demands made of them, whatever their reasons.

Suspicious calm

Neologisms such as ‘density stress’ and ‘stress test’ serve to expand the phenomenon. It is no longer just work or family life placing pressure on the individual, but the sheer presence of lots of other people. And it’s no longer just people that can be ‘stressed’, but also institutions and materials. The trajectory of the ‘stress’ concept means that our lives are determined by constant processes of testing and selection. We are subject to permanent pressure – or at least we have to act as if that were the case. In a time that is fixated on hustle and bustle, nothing is more suspicious than someone who is calm or leisurely.

To be sure, people felt under pressure in earlier times too and showed physical symptoms of stress – for example, when the neighbour had just died of the plague, when the enemy was at the gates, or when rain had destroyed the year’s crops. It is the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, that is regarded as the embodiment of a ‘nervous’ epoch (and it was seen that way even by those alive at the time). But given that in pre-modern times no one knew either the concept of ‘stress’ or the symptoms associated with it, no one felt ‘stressed’ – not even about the prospect of an infernal afterlife. The general fear of the supernatural among the rural populations of pre-modern times was a different emotional state that we can hardly reconstruct today; perhaps it was more of a dull, gut feeling of unease that gave way to a sense of relief during prayer or religious ceremonies.

Stress death

Just as every era has its own illnesses, so every era also has its own emotions. And if emotions such as fear, joy and rage are widespread, then they are always embedded in social connections that afford them meaning, as the historian Ute Frevert writes in his book Vergängliche Gefühle (Wallstein, 2013). In the 19th century, for example, any good German maiden would have turned red in the face had the word ‘trousers’ been mentioned in her presence. She was meant to feel painfully embarrassed, perhaps even ‘stressed’. And if she didn’t, then her moral integrity would be in doubt.
The ‘inventor’ of the stress concept is regarded as being the medical doctor and chemist Hans Selye, as the historian Patrick Kury writes in his history of stress (Der überforderte Mensch, Campus, 2012). In the 1930s Selye came across the so-called adaptation syndrome in experiments with rats. When he injected rats with poisonous substances or had them run non-stop in a treadmill, he found that they died a ‘stress death’ on account of hormonal reactions. During the Second World War, English military doctors used the concept to describe the high degree of pressure to which pilots were subjected. Without the rats tortured in the laboratories and without the pilots in the war, we would not have the ‘stress’ from which almost everyone suffers today (or at least claims to suffer).

Selye’s concept of stress, to be sure, was physiological and endocrinological. In the 1950s, the concept was expanded by the Swedish psychosocial doctor Lennart Levi. He identified a connection between illness and psychological, social and culturally induced stress. The concept of stress still retains this sense of ambiguity; it originated in the natural sciences, moved into the social sciences, and from there was diffused into everyday speech. It can be used to describe both external pressure and reactions brought forth by all kinds of stimuli, along with the physical and psychological illnesses that are caused by it. Almost anything can cause ‘stress’ today, even boredom, and conversely almost every illness has elements of ‘stress’ in it. Today, psychologists speak of stress, but so do sociologists, medical doctors, biologists, and even physicists and economists – and, of course, so does everyone who feels ‘stressed’.

In recent years, the concept of ‘good stress’ has gained currency in research in the natural sciences. Unlike in everyday speech or in today’s sociological diagnoses, the concept of ‘stress’ in the natural sciences has both a negative and a positive aspect. Hans Selye already distinguished between ‘distress’ and ‘eustress’. Negative stress is regarded as the cause of cardiovascular dysfunction, autoimmune diseases, depression and cognitive decline. Good stress on the other hand is created when our organism is influenced positively by ‘stressors’. We use the excitation potential of stress in order to recognise dangers and to bring ourselves into safety. In evolutionary, biological terms, this has always been the case – it applied, for example, if one of our ancestors was faced with an approaching lion.

Healthy stress?

Researchers have reached the conclusion that stress can even be ‘healthy’ – under the condition that it does not constitute a chronic burden but a short-term stimulant. In patients who have endured stress on account of an operation, it has led to immune cells being activated. This leads to their wound healing more rapidly, or to their cancer cells being contained. And an experiment carried out on rats (one that was not just stressful to them, but which ended in their death) has given reason to suspect that the increased distribution of the stress hormone cortisol increases the plasticity of the brain. This, in turn, would mean the affected person would learn more effectively.

We must be cautious about the results of this research. Good health is a relative thing. If someone learns efficiently and is a successful pupil but acts destructively towards fellow human beings or is tortured by unconscious fears, then the term ‘healthy’ could hardly be used. Perhaps these results could aid us to accept what is required of us in the world of work with a greater degree of equanimity, to see it even as a stimulant – if one’s work actually allows one the necessary space for it. Or is the renaissance of ‘good stress’ simply an ideal concept for a society in which nothing is regarded with more contempt than doing nothing? – unless, of course, one is in the midst of one’s (naturally stress-free) holidays!

Urs Hafner is a science editor at the SNSF.
(From "Horizons" No. 102, September 2014)