Hans Selye - Highlights

Hans Selye is often considered one of the early pioneers of modern stress theory. His scientific research helped to shape our understanding of stress.


Hans Selye was born in Vienna in 1907. He earned a medical degree and Ph.D., from German University in Prague and a D. Sc. from McGill University in Montreal. His scientific research resulted in 38 books and over 1600 technical articles.

Hans Selye's Definition of Stress &
General Adaptation Syndrome

Selye defined stress as:

“Stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions.”

Selye identified three stages of adaptation which a person goes through in his General Adaptation Syndrome in 1936. They are:

  1. Alarm
  2. Resistance
  3. Exhaustion

These stages are associated with particular biological markers such as changes in hormone patterns and the production of more “stress hormones,” and the gradual depletion of the body’s energy resources.

In the Alarm stage the body recognizes a challenge or threat and goes into a “fight or flight” response. Stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are both produced. (The phrase "fight or flight" was actually first coined by Walter Cannon another important pioneer in modern stress theory.)

In the Resistance stage the body attempts to adapt to a challenging situation which is persisting. The coping or adaptation requires physiological resources, which may eventually get depleted.

If the Exhaustion stage occurs, the stressful challenge has persisted too long. The immune system is impaired, long term damage and illness may result.

Distress and Eustress

Hans Selye distinguished between distress and eustress.
Both distress and eustress result in the activation of the General Adaptation Syndrome.

However Selye noticed that changes we feel upset about (distress) cause much more biological damage than changes we feel good about (eustress).

Selye understood that “how you take it” determines, ultimately, whether you can adapt successfully to change. Acceptance of change reduces the impact of stress.

Thus one could say that increasing our levels of emotional acceptance about a situation helps us adapt to change and reduces the damage of stress.

For example, two people may lose their job-

  • Person A becomes angry and depressed.
    He becomes unable to function or find new work due to the job loss which he experiences as unfair and stressful.
  • Person B quickly accepts the situation.
    He creatively begins job hunting and easily finds new employment.

Discussion -

If we think of stress as external then to reduce stress we must change the world....impossible.

If we realize stress is our response to circumstances and events in our life then reducing stress is possible.

Healthy lifestyle choices can help make us stronger and more resilient so that life‘s challenges are not as stressful. Healthy habits help with stress prevention.

Greater understanding of some of life’s most challenging situations, often considered the biggest causes of stress, can reduce unnecessary stress.

Many natural stress relief techniques can help us restore a sense of ease, balance and harmony in our lives.

Continue reading about what is stress, or

For more stress relief tips click to Gentle Stress Relief home page


Selye, Hans. “The Nature of Stress.” http://www.icnr.com/articles/thenatureofstress.html

Wikipedia, 2008. "Stress (biological)" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress_(medicine)

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