Defining Stress; As Conceptualised By Selye

Khiron discusses stress theory

When we think about stress, we realise that it is not unusual for people to describe themselves as being stressed”; it is an overused and often misunderstood term, similar to feeling depressed or anxious; it has become a colloquialism from a psychological condition to a feeling which can be used for a range of different situations and contexts, without necessarily being a clinical diagnosis.

This article will attempt to clarify what is meant by the term stress, from the perspective of Hans Selye, known as ‘the father of stress research[1]’. Selye labelled what he initially described as the ‘syndrome of just being sick to stress-response theory[2]’ after extensive research on patients who were suffering from different conditions and diseases, all of which reported losing weight, losing interest in work and hobbies and feeling low in mood. It occurred to Selye that it was likely there was a relationship between psychological functioning and physiological conditions that, if identified, could help ease aspects of the suffering patients of diseases, such as low motivation to eat, dress or wash. Furthermore, Selye felt that by understanding in more detail the relationship between disease and stress, it could be possible to prevent disease forming in the instance, or advancing into potentially fatal cases.

Selyes theory 

Selyes theory was the first that focused on stress as a biological function rather than the term used in physics to describe the interaction between objects. He hypothesised that stress is likely to be a manifestation of the body defending itself against overwhelming stimuli or demands[3] and therefore is interconnected with inflammatory diseases and other physical diseases.

Selye found that over time, resistance to stress can cause the body to become exhausted, and as a result of weakened resistance, the body is more susceptible to inflammatory diseases, chronic fatigue and a shorter life.

Defining stress

In order to distinguish what stress is, Selye chose to clarify exactly what it is not in 10 succinct points, which is particularly helpful given that the meaning and understanding of what it has become confused and largely dependent on specific context[4].

  • It is not simply nervous tension; it has been identified in organisms without a nervous system and can occur in people who are under anaesthetic or unconscious, it is the response to the stressor, not the stressor itself.
  • It is not a rapid discharge of hormones stemming from the adrenal medulla, despite catecholamines being understood to be a part of the reaction to a stressor, they are not activated in isolation and have no part in generalised inflammatory diseases or stress reactions.
  • It is not a reaction that causes an emission from the adrenal cortex, such as corticoids, as adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) can elicit a release of corticoids without a stress response.
  • It is not always the response to extraordinary or extreme situations that cause damage; a stress response can occur when playing sports or in intimate moments without causing any noticeable or even slight damage.
  • Stress response is not the same as a divergence from homeostasis, which is the bodys steady state, devoid of any stimuli. The body can go out of homeostasis when reacting to a noise, blinking an eye, or stretching; causing muscles to contract without any evidence found of a stress response.
  • It is not caused by something that causes an alarm reaction, such as witnessing or experience a traumatic incident or hearing a loud noise; the stimulus in this context is the stressor, not the response of stress.
  • Furthermore, the stress response is not the same as the alarm reaction. The alarm reaction is typified by specific endorgan changes as a result of stress and therefore cannot be the same as the stress response itself.
  • It is not a vague, non-specific reaction to stimuli; the pattern of the stress response is consistent and specific despite varying causes and effects on each person.
  • It may not necessarily be a response to a negative experience; a person can experience a stress response after overcoming challenges in their personal or professional life or while engaging their creativity, these situations are positive, whereas the stress response of anxiety, disease or failure can be negative.
  • It is not something that can be avoided; it is a part of life that is necessary for personal growth, as uncomfortable as it can often be. Learning how to deal with stress is as necessary for a healthy life as recognising how long to sleep for, or how to achieve a balanced diet.

By understanding exactly what stress isnt can go some way to help one understand what exactly is the causal factor that leads to diseases and conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, liver disease, sexual dysfunction, psychological conditions and even cancer. By understanding the above points, medical professionals may be able to prescribe general advice such as rest, healthy diet and ask more questions around lifestyle, as to what may be one of the causes and likely a factor in advancing illness.

If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to find the right help for any form of mental health issue, including stress, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


  1. – accessed 11/01/2020
  2. – accessed 11/01/2020

  3. ibid.

  4. Selyes, H. (1974). Stress without distress. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott – accessed 11/01/2020