Book Review: The Stress Of Life

The Stress Of Life, by Hans Selye

At times it is useful to discuss how I came about a book. As it happens, I got this book from a free book table given by some acquaintances of mine, one of whom struggles with a problem that I do, and that is talked about in this book. As it happens, this book was written in 1950, and the edition I have was published in 1956. The book is part of a genre that I greatly appreciate, and that is the scientific memoir [1]. This particular book offers quite an excellent example of the genre which has much to offer both as a memoir as well as an account of a major and often neglected scientific discovery and the development of its theoretical foundation from firm empirical experimentation.

The book itself is organized into five “books” that total 300 pages of excellent text with a lot of experimental diagrams. The first book shows the “discovery” of the stress concept and makes a thoughtful examination of how discovery is not the recognition of isolated facts but their connection to the rest of the world. The second book shows a dissection of the mechanism of adaptation by which the body is attacked by and defends itself against stress. The third book shows diseases of adaptation, ranging from mental disorders to disorders of the digestive system to problems with the adrenals and kidneys. The fourth book shows a sketch for the unified theory, showing how the theory of stress offers a way of connecting together many previously isolated phenomena into a unified concept that shows how the body’s characteristic ways of responding to outside threats and internal pressures presents tradeoffs and intractable dilemmas. The fifth book is perhaps the most thought-provoking of all, a philosophical defense of teleological thinking that shows the implications and applications of stress theory to show how people can live a better life in light of knowing how the body deals with the pressures of life.

In many ways this book is both a landmark as well as a major missed opportunity. To think that it was not until Selye’s work in the 1930’s that stress was recognized as a concept is rather shocking given its importance to our contemporary efforts at bettering our standard of living. The book has a lot of touches that are somewhat unexpected and very excellent. An entire chapter is devoted to what happens when scientists disagree, showing a debt of gratitude between Selye and an older scientist who was a mentor of sorts for him. Another chapter is devoted to defending the role of teleology in science in a way that anticipates intelligent design theory, showing how mindless evolutionary thought has harmed science by preventing us from recognizing the design inherent in our body’s reactions against outside and internal problems, as well as the ways these defenses can go wrong in diseases of inflammation (like arthritis), and even cancer. Yet another chapter is devoted to defending the importance of gratitude as one of the most important ways to live life well in light of a desire to live long and well. Still another chapter is devoted to defending the legitimacy of animal experimentation in light of its experimental benefits for people, while the serendipitous nature of experiments with rats and chickens and even monkeys cover the pages of this book, showing how researchers learned about stress from the sufferings of small animals.

The missed opportunity is how little the research and theory examined in this book has been put into practice through the medical community. The book itself hints at a few of the reasons why the research has been hard to practice. Among them are the fact that the book itself focuses on behavior rather than drugs, cutting against the trends of our time to pursue behavioral fixes to major societal evils rather than relying on drugs that merely focus on the side effects. Likewise, the hold of mindless evolutionary thinking has prevented the recognition of design in the body’s defenses and how they go awry. This is a case where we see the practical effects of bad theory in a major way. It is a shame that it has harmed the health of many people who could benefit from this theory and its applications simply because it leads in directions that scientists are unwilling to accept, proof of the author’s contention that scientists are not merely logical but have emotions and prejudices of their own. The fact that scientists are unwilling to admit this, by and large, does not make it any less true.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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20 Responses to Book Review: The Stress Of Life

  1. Pingback: But Never Put Up Resistance In Vain | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Richard says:

    RE: “The missed opportunity is how little the research and theory examined in this book has been put into practice through the medical community.”

    We are now doing something about this and it looks promising so far. The people were not ready or emotionally / intellectually prepared to accept Selye’s work. Today the mindset is different from the past as the new doctors and practitioners are more open minded to accept such “absurd notions” 🙂

    • Indeed, that is so, but to think that sixty years of needless suffering could have been at least alleviated is a missed opportunity. Still, it is good to be able to take advantage right now.

      • Richard says:

        Actually if you look more closely to what the “self help” industry has been doing, as well as what psychiatry and psychology has been permitted, they have been trying to utilize Selye’s (and others) work, only now do we see that they have been trying (without much success) to instil and encourage “intent” into a patient/client. Without an available understandable and acceptable paradigm, the average person always feels in the dark, and this feeling is what exacerbates the issue and prolongs suffering by disconnecting intent (motivation). Relief or remedy, the only way is through education at this point. Updated education of how the mind and body function and communicate is crucial to managing adaptation (depression). Its not that difficult to conceptualize and utilize when the language of any new paradigm is relatively understood.

      • I wholeheartedly agree. Much effort in self-help has been in trying to provide practical guidance in how to manage the stress of life, but has done so without a theoretical basis to understand the whole relationship between our physical and mental health and our own mindset and the context of the world we find ourselves in. That deeper theoretical context is of great importance in putting meaning into the practical tips of self-help manuals.

  3. Richard says:

    “practical tips” is at the root of the problem if there is an emotional epidemic in our world. People have become lazy minded and refuse or rebel against personal investigation while relying on someone they imagine more knowledgeable than they (on this premise they lose right from the start). The deeper theoretical context is of great importance I agree and this is why I say there exists a new paradigm for the 21 st century and that it is a matter of education and religion (mind- body)

    • Right. That is a central insight, that in order to successfully deal with life requires not merely information but also toil and work. There is no magic bullet or easy answer for the variety of difficulties we face in life, but rather we have to find an approach of balance and also to work on those aspects of life which are under our control and accommodate ourselves to the realities that we cannot change, and to know the difference.

    • Richard says:

      If the paradigm is a true and profound realization (humanity’s struggle with idea) , whether or not it is considered or rejected by the communities, it will become commonplace not long after introduction. A new paradigm is like a cerebral virus that eventually spreads across borders and becomes a part of the social conscience.

      • Richard says:

        The problem is; has one been realized, and if yes, then what is the best method of dissemination? Recent history (sixty years of needless suffering) tells us that it is not within the mental health industry. The mental health industry has failed in the department of supplying us with a healthy society. Futility is a strong word, but it seems to fit the current situation with regard to what is going on with trying to fix the problem of depression and anxiety in a clinical environment. The paradigm is to have them see it and stop the madness and look for alternatives before everyone on the planet becomes depressed and we have mass suicides to deal with.

      • The mental health industry in general has not done very well, you are right there. The question of how theory can be disseminated the best is a serious one, given the fact that so many are resistant to theory without practice, while practice without theory is merely disconnected without insight. Ideally, both should be learned together.

      • Eventually, assuming it ties together enough insights.

  4. Richard says:

    The way that any theory can “tie together insights” is if it is true, if it is true, it will resonate, or “speak to the common senses”, and if the paradigm within is profound it will emotionally move a person, if it is a truly profound paradigm, some people will show physical changes in health and mental wellness,,,and it will last. S where do we find it then?

  5. Richard says:

    I agree, and this is why to have it in an actual clinical trial will soon tell :p

    Note: Have you received the notification of the new discussion at Natures Paradigm LinkedIn Group yet?

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