The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress

Monday, July 07, 2014

The modern idea of stress began on a rooftop in Canada, with a handful of rats freezing in the winter wind.

This was 1936 and by that point the owner of the rats, an endocrinologist named Hans Selye, had become expert at making rats suffer for science.

"He would subject them to extreme temperatures, make them go hungry for long periods, or make them exercise a lot," the medical historian Mark Jackson says. "Then what he would do is kill the rats and look at their organs."

What was interesting to Selye was that no matter how different the tortures he devised for the rats were — from icy winds to painful injections — when he cut them open to examine their guts it appeared that the physical effects of his different tortures were always the same.

"Almost universally these rats showed a particular set of signs," Jackson says. "There would be changes particularly in the adrenal gland. So Selye began to suggest that subjecting an animal to prolonged stress led to tissue changes and physiological changes with the release of certain hormones, that would then cause disease and ultimately the death of the animal."

And so the idea of stress — and its potential costs to the body — was born.

But here's the thing: The idea of stress wasn't born to just any parent. It was born to Selye, a scientist absolutely determined to make the concept of stress an international sensation.

"He wrote, I don't know, 1,500 books and articles. I mean, it was a massive, massive output from the man," says Jackson. "He was an incredible man. He only slept four or five hours a day. He was always the first in the lab and the last to leave; his energy was fantastic. Selye went all over the world promoting the gospel of stress."

As Selye wrote in his biography, The Stress of My Life (one of 39 books he authored to promote the concept of stress), "Stress will have been my cathedral and I shall polish and perfect it. ... I know my child will outlive me."

But Selye wasn't the only high-profile scientist who decided to promote the idea that stress posed a profound danger to health.

In the mid-1950s, two American cardiologists — Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman — created the idea of the Type A personality.

Their argument, essentially, was that there existed in America an entire class of people who lived lives so full of stress and pressure that their bodies were especially prone to disease, particularly heart attack. The doctors published a study that claimed the coronary disease rate for men with Type A personality was twice as high as other men.

This idea of a special driven and stress-sensitive subset of personality really captured the American imagination.

"You can still see it today," says Mark Petticrew, director of public health research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "Literally many thousands of websites still talk about Type A behavior in a fairly uncritical way. It still has that grip in popular culture."

The thing most people don't realize as they worry over the dangers of stress, Petticrew says, is that much of this foundational scientific research on stress was funded and guided by a very particular sponsor.

"What's never really been appreciated is that the tobacco industry was a major funder and stimulant of research on stress," he says. "Specifically Selye's work, but also research on Type A behavior. Type A personality is to a large extent a construct of the tobacco industry."

A Document Trove Reveals Tobacco Influence

For the past decade or so, Petticrew and a group of colleagues in London have been searching through millions of documents from the tobacco industry that were archived online in the late '90s as part of a legal settlement with tobacco companies.

What they've discovered is that both Selye's work and much of the work around Type A personality were profoundly influenced by cigarette manufacturers. They were interested in promoting the concept of stress because it allowed them to argue that it was stress — not cigarettes — that was to blame for heart disease and cancer.

"In the case of Selye they vetted ... the content of the paper, they agreed the wording of papers," says Petticrew, "tobacco industry lawyers actually influenced the content of his writings, they suggested to him things that he should comment on."

They also, Petticrew says, spent a huge amount of money funding his research. All of this is significant, Petticrew says, because Selye's influence over our ideas about stress are hard to overstate. It wasn't just that Selye came up with the concept, but in his time he was a tremendously respected figure.

"Selye was one of the major scientists of the 20th century; he was nominated for a Nobel Prize 10 times," Petticrew says. "So I feel it's impossible and it's misleading to talk about stress without acknowledging the fact that he had a very, very close working relationship with the tobacco industry. And they helped him to shape his ideas, and he helped them to shape theirs."

This is also true of the work around Type A personalities and the notion that a highly stressed personality — not cigarette consumption — caused heart disease, particularly in men.

Petticrew says that though early studies, some of which were funded by tobacco companies, showed a connection between Type A and heart attacks, as more studies have piled up the original findings of Friedman and Rosenman have been undermined.

"There have been very few studies which have actually shown that Type A behavior is a risk factor for illness, certainly for coronary heart disease," Petticrew says. "Of the studies that do show that, and there are only four, in three of them the researchers had some contact or money from the tobacco industry. That's not to say, and absolutely shouldn't be said, that all Type A behavior research is tainted by tobacco money. But it has had a major skewing effect on the field which I think has been completely unrecognized."

NPR contacted Altria's Philip Morris tobacco unit, the primary funder of Type A research and also a major contributor to Selye. The company had no comment about the research; a spokesman said all the research happened too long ago.

Selye's Lasting Mark

In the years since Selye's foundational work, research on stress has exploded. There's no question that stress, particularly chronic stress in childhood, has a very serious impact on long-term health.

But some scientists now argue that our usual narrative of stress — that stress is universally bad for health — is too one-sided and doesn't reflect the reality that some degree of stress can actually benefit people. Stress isn't always a bad thing.

Still, the narrative of stress promoted by the tobacco industry through research and marketing is alive and well. A ghost from a long time ago continues to shape how we see, and experience, stress.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

Source: NPR


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Comments [6]


Albert, go find out a little about the “nocebo” effect:

It’s an assault on mental health.

Jul. 07 2014 09:03 PM
Albert Benson

It is disappointing that the writers of the above comments do not have a clue as to how the human body reacts to the extreme irritating nature of second hand tobacco smoke. I am just such a victim of second hand smoke, where my
immune system went into an auto immune mode, causing an extreme inflammation in my bronchial, lungs and rib cage, end result being pneumonia which was a six week ordeal, ultimately diagnosed as Asthmatic Bronchitis and 5 years later after repeated exposures to 'their' second hand smoke, Asthmatic Bronchitis gravitated to Myasthena Gravis, right side face with Diplopia. Fortunately our LA smoking laws controlled the smoking and exposures, being being able to avoid all second hand smoke for 10 years, the MG went into remission, however still very hypersensitive and vulnerable to second hand smoke. However this is California, we are essentially smoke free, so we can live our lives without having to worry about walking into a cloud of second hand tobacco smoke. So far, so good.

Jul. 07 2014 08:55 PM

Let’s consider what the antismoking zealots have “constructed”.

“Nicotine addiction” is a throwback to mid-1800s America. Many of the diseases attributed to smoking are based on flimsy, small statistical differences manufactured into “causation” by antismoking zealots, i.e., causation by consensus. Secondhand smoke “danger” is an antismoking construct. Thirdhand smoke “danger” is an antismoking construct.

Tobacco smoke has been manufactured into a “magical mist”, more “deadly” than a bio-weapon like, say, sarin gas, and capable of “causing” almost every disease known to humanity. When antismoking zealots are given State support, their claims become more absurd and hysterical, and their demands more draconian and inhumane. The problem is that there is a segment of society that believes the inflammatory trash – appeal to authority.

Jul. 07 2014 08:14 PM

The current antismoking crusade, very much in the eugenics tradition – involving the same medically-aligned personnel and repugnant methodology, is much like crusades over the previous 400 years. It is a moralizing, social-engineering, eradication/prohibition crusade decided upon in the 1970s by a small, self-installed clique of [medically-oriented] fanatics operating under the auspices of the World Health Organization and sponsored by the American Cancer Society (see the Godber Blueprint). This little, unelected group, using much the same inflammatory rhetoric of its fanatical predecessors, decided for everyone that tobacco-use should be eradicated from the world – for a “better” (according to them) world. These fanatics were speaking of secondhand smoke “danger” and advocating indoor and OUTDOOR smoking bans years before the first study on SHS and extortionate taxes on tobacco “cost burden” analyses of smoking: In the 1970s, populations – particularly in relatively free societies – weren’t interested in elitist social-engineering, particularly by a group (medically-aligned) that had a horrible recent track record (eugenics). Given that their antismoking crusade would have otherwise stalled, the zealots conjured secondhand smoke “danger” to advance the social-engineering agenda, i.e., inflammatory propaganda. Until only recently the zealots claimed they weren’t doing social engineering, that they weren’t moralizing. Well, that’s a lie that’s been told many times over during the last few decades.

The zealots’ goal this time is not to ban the sale of tobacco but to ban smoking in essentially all the places that people smoke (combined with extortionate taxes), indoors and out. Up until recently the social-engineering intent has been masqueraded as protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke “danger”. But even this fraud can no longer be hidden in that bans are now being instituted for large outdoor areas such as parks, beaches, campuses where there is no demonstrable “health” issue for nonsmokers. This dangerous mix of the medically-aligned attempting social engineering is a throwback to a century ago. We seem to have learned nothing of value from very painful lessons of only the recent past.

Jul. 07 2014 08:12 PM

Extraordinary is that journalists, having jumped on the anti-tobacco bandwagon, are utterly clueless to the history of antismoking.

It’s America that’s popularized antismoking insanity – again, and which other countries are following suit. The problem with Americans is that they are clueless to even their own recent history. America has a terrible history with this sort of “health” fanaticism/zealotry/extremism or “clean living” hysteria – including antismoking - that goes back more than a century.

Antismoking is not new. It has a long, sordid, 400+ year history, much of it predating even the pretense of a scientific basis or the more recent concoction of secondhand smoke “danger”. Antismoking crusades typically run on inflammatory propaganda, i.e., lies, in order to get law-makers to institute bans. Statistics and causal attribution galore are conjured. The current antismoking rhetoric has all been heard before. All it produces is irrational fear and hatred, discord, enmity, animosity, social division, oppression, and bigotry.

For a brief history of antismoking, see:
“Cigarette Wars: The ‘Triumph’ of the Little White Slaver” (1998) by Cassandra Tate. Google the following combination - “the endless war on tobacco” “seattletimes” – which should bring up a summary article of the book at the Seattle Times.

Gordon L. Dillow (1981), “Thank You for Not Smoking” [The Hundred-Year War Against the Cigarette]

Jul. 07 2014 08:05 PM

The Nazi "war on tobacco", an extension of American eugenics:

Jul. 07 2014 08:01 PM

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