Stress and Life

28 Mar 2013

Consultant Psychiatrist

“Stress is the spice of life” Hans Selye (1980)



It was Walter Cannon (1871-1945) who first described the physiological fight-or-flight response to a threatening situation. The term stress was introduced by Hans Selye (1907-1982). Stress in small doses has an enabling effect – indeed, stress is necessary. Without stress, Selye suggested, life is impossible. Just like salt, a little is essential, but too much is toxic. “It can be a great stimulus to achievement. Nevertheless, it can cause disease, suffering and death”.

Life for human beings can become difficult and therefore stressful at any time, but there are particular characteristic experiences that can be challenging. Some of these so-called Life Events are associated with particular stages of life.

Leaving school and going to college for example, or leaving college and starting work. These milestones, or cross-roads, can be called “crises”. They are periods of uncertainty associated with stress. The linked state of arousal is helpful in coping, and in getting through the required changes successfully. We can learn more quickly at these times. If professional help is needed the psychological approach called crisis intervention may be indicated.

Otherwise, adverse circumstances and a major source of stress in most people’s lives can be less discrete than a life event as such, and more like ongoing “daily hassles”. Such chronic pressure can be debilitating, provoking as much illness as a major life events.

A particular life event may come “out of the blue”, perhaps because it necessarily involves someone else. When a death occurs in a family, adjusting to the changes involved can be difficult and painful for those affected. Bereavement is the most stressful of all life events. The severe distress of grief is well known to lead sometimes to both psychological and physical illness. Unhappiness sometimes becomes clinical depression, requiring medical treatment. A partner left behind can die as a result, “broken-hearted”.

More on Stress:



Dr Christopher Bridgett (DrB) is a specialist in Adult General Psychiatry who has also worked in Dermatology since being first introduced to Psychodermatology by Arthur Rook in 1971. Together with dermatologists Richard Staughton (London) and Peter Norén (Uppsala) he co-authored Atopic Skin Disease - A Manual for Practitioners, which sets out a behavioural approach for the successful management of atopic eczema. Now retired from both NHS and private practice, he continues to teach and advise at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, London and runs an online community for both practitioners and patients interested in The Combined Approach to the treatment of atopic eczema:

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