Stress in The Past



Although the use of the term "stress" in biology dates back only to the first part of the 20th century, our contemporary understanding of the biological effects of stressful experience enables investigators now to speculate about how much stress was experienced by people in the past.

Thus it is reported that the chemical analysis of the hair in human remains of Medieval Peruvians and Early Egyptians shows high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Such findings, together with other research, is likely to show that modern life is no more stressful than life in the past.

The history of western medicine is usually traced back to the physicians of ancient Greece and Rome. Hippocrates and his followers, especially Galen, physician to several Roman Emperors, were familiar with the adverse effects that life experience could have on bodily function. Their ideas were influential for centuries to come.

In the 17th century the English scholar Robert Burton wrote in his monumental work The Anatomy of Melancholy (1671) about the usefulness of considering making practical changes to circumstances and activities to reduce adverse experience, and in that way relieve the symptoms of depressive illness.

Closer to our modern era, the physician Herbert Snow wrote in "Clinical Notes on Cancer" (1883) about the possible links between serious illness and bereavement, over-work and worry - all now linked with the modern concept of stress, and Henry Maudsley, the 19th Century pioneering British psychiatrist, is now widely quoted as having observed that "sorrows which find no vent in tears may soon make other organs weep".

Western scientific thinking no longer attaches importance to the ancient humoural system of bodily function. However modern life event research supports the ancient assertion that adverse - that is to say, stressful - experience can cause illness, and sometimes death.

Previously on stress:
Stress for Beginners

Next on Stress:
Stress in Modern Times