Selye’s stress theory: what it is and what it explains

Stress is a dysfunctional activation state that is present in many clinical pictures but which also appears in healthy people. Although it has been studied from many directions and theories, in this article we will know Selye’s stress theory.

Hans Selye was a professor and researcher who claimed to speak of the stress that “what matters is not what happens to us but how it is received”. From there, he elaborates his theory, which we will know about below.

    What is stress?

    Stress appears when it occurs in the body greater activation which he is able to support or reduce through his coping strategies, Whether psychological and / or behavioral. In this sense, the body is unable to maintain optimal or adequate levels to function behaviorally and psychologically.

    In evolutionary terms, when a person suffers from stress, it is because he has “failed” to adapt to the environment or to the stressor, and the emotional and physical consequences are often significant.

    Selye’s stress theory: features

    Hans Selye was a professor and researcher, considered the “father of stress”, who defined it as “the body’s non-specific response to any request made of it”. On another side, in the 1940s he also defined general adaptation syndrome (GAS), Understand stress as a non-specific and global response of the organism.

    Selye establishes his theory of stress, according to which this response is a biological response, equal in all organisms and stereotypical. In addition, it can be measured and involves a series of hormonal secretions, responsible for the reactions we have shown when faced with a stressful situation. These reactions are somatic, functional and organic. Although it should be noted that most of the time, the body responds harmoniously to environmental stimuli and without negative consequences: This is what we call good stress.

    Other times, however, and following Selye’s stress theory, the body is unable to adapt to the environment (when stress arises) because the required responses are too intense or prolonged and the demands exceed their resilience. and / or their adaptation. We then speak of “distress” or “bad stress” (stress, in general).

    Stress as a physiological process

    The stress would be a normal physiological process of stimulation, activation and response of the organism. But when it’s prolonged or too intense, that’s when it’s harmful and Selye’s EMS appears.

    Thus, in Selye’s stress theory, stress is conceived as essential for the functioning of the body and that it allows progress, unless it is excessive and becomes dysfunctional or maladaptive, as we have already seen.

    For Selye, most of the physical or mental effort that a person puts in to adapt to the demands of life, infections and other stressors, causes changes in the body.

    These changes occur in the first two phases of the general adaptation syndrome (alarm phase and resistance phase). The third phase would be exhaustion, And only appears when the body tries to adapt to too many changes or sources of stress, or when these persist over time.

      How does it appear?

      In Selye’s stress theory, Selye states that “negative” stress occurs when a person is subjected to accumulated doses of stress that exceed their optimal threshold for adaptation; thus, the organism he is starting to show signs of exhaustion. Whether or not this state of exhaustion and fatigue occurs depends on the person’s psychological profile, as well as the frequency (and type) of adaptations experienced.

      influencing factors

      On the other hand, there are also factors which modify a person’s receptivity to environmental stimuli or situations, and which “contaminate” our ability to adapt. In this way, they prevent us from recognizing which current agents are causing this stress.

      These factors influence our response (physical, psychological and biological); they condition and determine it. The same agent or the same situation may elicit a different response in different subjects. These factors predispose us to our vulnerability to disease and worsen our quality of life.

      Likewise, the quality of life is also linked to conditions such as food, psycho-affective education, the environment, the way of life, the work context and possible poisonings such as alcohol or the tobacco.

      Types of stress

      On another side, H. Selye distinguishes two types of stress: Local stress (when there is a direct action of a stressor on a limited part of the body) and local adaptation syndrome or ALS (when a defensive adaptation reaction occurs).

      Response from the organization according to Selye

      In response to stress, the basic mechanism of physiological action of Selye follows a certain sequence, which is:

      Blood pressure – Hypothalamus – Pituitary gland – Adrenal cortex (testosterone) – + HACT (adrenocorticotropic) + corticosteroids – scabies constriction, lymph node atrophy, sugar inhibition.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York: McGraw-Hill.
      • Selye, H. (1964). From dream to discovery. Be a scientist. New York: McGraw-Hill.
      • Lazarus, R. and Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, assessment and adaptation. Springer Publishing Company

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