Let's Make Stress Less Distressing

by Al Siebert, Ph.D., author of The Survivor Personality

Concept paper prepared for the Oregon Department of Education

Stress: The Internal Killer

For thousands of years during human history, the primary causes of early death were contagious diseases and infections. The average life expectancy in the past was from 30-40 years. As humans identified and controlled these external killers through sanitary practices, personal hygiene, vaccinations, and antibiotics, our life expectancy climbed to 50-60 years.

Then life style emerged as the main cause of early death. The old philosophy "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die," it turned out, contributed to people dying. People were shortening their lives through smoking, unhealthy eating and drinking, reckless living, and sloth.

Knowledge about physical fitness, nutritional fitness, and safe living increased average life expectancy toward 70 years. But now a new killer has emerged as the number one cause of early death. It is an internal killer. A killer that can strike even those people who work at physical and nutritional fitness. The killer is stress.

Stress, Illness, Coping, and Risking

Illness and death occur when constant alarm reactions exhaust the body's response capacities. The adrenal cortex suppresses inflammation and immune reactions. Chronic suppression of the immune system increases vulnerability to infections and some forms of cancer. Ulcers, hypertension, heart disease, asthma, and some allergies are stress related illnesses.

Stress itself is not the problem, however. The problem is that some people react to the circumstances and events in their lives in ways that result in illness and early death. Stress is a concept that can be useful in efforts to understand how and why some people become sick while others become strong in the same environment. A summary of research findings shows that:

Persons more likely to develop stress related illness…

  • experience more stressors in routine activities;
  • feel vulnerable, helpless, and without choices;
  • have limited internal and external resources to draw on;
  • feel socially isolated, not accepted;
  • have little capacity for self-change; and
  • accumulate negative experiences.

Persons less likely to develop stress related illness…

  • experience fewer stressors in routine activities;
  • feel capable of taking effective action about upsetting events;
  • draw action choices from a wide range of inner and external resources;
  • experience family and friends as caring and supportive;
  • manage self-change well; and
  • convert negative experiences into beneficial learning.


Stress has gotten a bad name in recent years. Students can cope with stressful situations better and the curriculum can cover the topic effectively if we clarify misunderstandings about stress and apply what is known about differences between stress-resistant and stress-vulnerable people. Misunderstandings include:

  1. Hans Selye made a mistake. Selye is the physician who created the concept "biological stress" in 1936, He apologized in his memoirs saying he used the wrong term. He said that when he came from Europe to attend medical school he did not understand the English language or physics very well. He said he should have named his concept the "strain syndrome."

    His research focus was to understand the physiology of "being sick." He was curious about why different diseases, illnesses, and toxins cause glands and organs to react in similar ways. He described his findings first as biological stress and later as psychological stress.

  2. People confuse a stimulus with their reaction to it. Stress is sometimes said to be in the job, home, or school, and sometimes said to be in the person. Many writers and workshop leaders go back and forth in saying that stress is an external stimulus ("List all the stresses in your job...") and the internal reaction to the stimulus. In physics a stressor is an external force attempting to deform an object. The effect on an object is measured as strain.

  3. There is no stress in any situation until a person has a stress reaction. What is stressful for one person is not stressful for another. Despite the good intentions of the 1987 Oregon legislature in passing House Bill 2271 declaring that job stress must be objectively defined, it can't be. Whether or not a person experiences distress depends upon the person's perception of what is going on and the person's coping skills. It isn't the circumstance that counts, it is the person's reaction to it that counts.

  4. A stressful situation can be beneficial. Selye coined the term "eustress" to emphasize that a certain amount of stress is necessary, is good for people. Athletes build up their physical strength through frequent workouts. Professional training programs build competence by straining people to their limits and slightly beyond. Emotionally stressful experiences can motivate a person to learn new coping skills.

  5. Good events in a person's life can be stressors. Most people think of stress in only negative terms. "Stress," as originally defined by Selye, "is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it to adapt whether that demand produces pleasure or pain."

Few people understand why the Life Event Scale predicting illness or injury, developed by psychiatrist Thomas Holmes, includes such items as: decrease in arguments with spouse, buying a new home, getting a promotion, receiving more money, taking a vacation, and Christmas holidays. The fact is that any change from what one is accustomed to requires adaptation and that draws on the physical reserves of the person in a way that may lead to illness or injury.

Psychological Fitness

Evidence that people do not know how to handle their life stresses well is found in the wide spread use of tranquilizing substances. Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reveals that each year Americans obtain 57.1 million prescriptions for Valium and 15.3 million prescriptions for Librium. In the 17-21 year old age group, 92% consume alcohol and 41% use marijuana each year.

The health education challenge in the years ahead is teach students how to develop psychological fitness instead of turning to chemical substances. Life's best survivors gain strength from stressful experiences by learning how to handle them better the next time they occur. By developing healthy self-esteem, self-reliance, emotional flexibility, and effective coping skills, they get stronger and better as the years go by.

Curriculum Challenges

The are always two ways to prevent something from turning out well, do it too much or too little. Curriculum planning should include attention to adult-child interactions that can interfere with children learning how to handle stressful conditions well. Problems are caused when the child is either…

  • made dependent by well-intentioned rescuers and not allowed to struggle to learn self-reliance;
    or abandoned to survive on own in a hostile world.

  • overly protected from upsetting, stressful experiences;
    or subjected to overwhelming stress--clobbered too hard or too often.

  • prohibited from using certain coping responses;
    or instructed to act, think, and feel in ways that are not effective.

An educational challenge is to create a flexible learning environment which effectively handles a wide range of differences in the stress handling abilities in children and facilitates each child learning how to effectively handle the stressors in that child's life. Another educational challenge is to develop ways to support risk taking that is necessary for developing self confidence while not supporting taking risks with drugs, sex, fast driving, or other health and life endangering activities.

Thus nothing is more important than a child having good role models. How teachers deal with stressors and engage in risk taking in their own lives will have more impact than what they try to teach in the classroom.

Summary and Conclusions

Now that contagious diseases and infections have been controlled, and people are learning the value of good nutrition, physical fitness, and safe living habits, an internal killer has emerged as the number one cause of early death. The killer is stress and the victims are often accomplices.

Many people are self-frazzling. They either create their own chronic stress reactions through poor self-management and risk taking or from not coping well with externally induced stresses.

Stress resistance can be learned. Many guidelines and programs exist on how to reduce and manage stress. The better approaches separate specific, unique, significant stressors in a person's life from the cumulative effect of many hassles. An effective plan of action includes problem solving and creative coping strategies for handling specific stressors while also developing life-style plans of action for resting and revitalizing. Specific problems require specific solutions while the cumulative effects of many small, non-specific hassles require generalized, non-specific wellness and well-being activities.

Biologists say that the human body is programmed for 120 years of healthy living. The future in health education lies in developing ways to teach students how to enjoy many decades of healthy, productive living.


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Al Siebert studied mental health for over forty years. He is author of The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life's Difficulties...and How You Can Be, Too.

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