• Jonathan Pittam

Why the stress research doesn't add up (part 1/3)

Stress or torture?

Imagine a rat, immobilised, taped down and injected with substances. Or alternatively, mice, dogs, cats, rabbits, and monkeys being exposed to a range of torments such as extreme heat, extreme cold, starvation, 24-hour light, fractures, wounds, asphyxiation, electric shocks, rotation, loud noises, maternal separation, and infection...

And now let’s measure the biological result of these torments in terms of hormonal and immune responses. Welcome to a day in the life of Hans Selye, the Canadian-Hungarian endocrinologist considered to be the father of stress research. This is where it all started…

An interesting observation

World renowned primatologist, Stanford professor of Biology, and author of the best-selling book on Stress ‘Why don’t zebras get ulcers’, Robert Sapolsky, stated in reference to the above that “We now know what Selye was observing, he had just discovered the tip of the iceberg of stress-related disease”.

Conflating stress with suffering

Humans and animals share many things in common, one of them being both of their ability to suffer. But applying findings from animal torture to everyday human stress is quite a leap. In this article I’m going to discuss why extrapolating from animal studies to humans is misleading when it comes to our modern beliefs about stress and the workplace.


My opening paragraph describes how we came to the modern theory of how stress causes disease, with animals being subjected to all sorts of ‘unpleasantness’, and the effects measured in terms of hormones, immune profile, and mortality.

A justification

To justify using animals as an analogue of humans, Hanse Selye explained it with the following words in the British Medical Journal in 1954, “Since the procedure is irritating, and produces a certain amount of struggling, the condition of the rat is not unlike that occasioned by physical and mental fatigue in man”.

Hold on a minute

Let’s just think about that, we’re saying that electric shocks, pain, exposure to extreme hot and cold, fractures, and maternal separation are similar to the everyday experience of humans? Maybe in a war situation or abusive families, but I doubt this is very near the truth for the day-to-day existence of most of us.

Cutting corners?

In his book Professor Sapolsky explains another reason why these findings might not relate to the real world. He talks about how it would be very inconvenient for scientists to have to expose an animal to stress then wait for the rest of its life to see if it gets more ill than an animal not exposed to stress. That would be very expensive and slow.

Instead, they take a different approach, they deliberately give the animal the disease (artificially induced diseases) Once artificially given a disease, the animal is then exposed to torments such as electric shock (‘stress’) and then they measure how the disease improves or worsens. Based on this they draw conclusions about how stress impacts disease. A backwards approach if you like…

Hmm, I’m not quite sure about that

Sapolsky even says himself, “relatively few experimental animal studies have looked at spontaneous diseases, rather than (artificially) induced ones”. He also goes on to add the fairly obvious, “But a problem in extrapolating (from animals) to humans is that the experimental stressors used in animal studies are usually more awful than what we typically experience”.

He might just have a point, as I can’t recall the last time I was rotated for hours on end, exposed to extreme heat, injected with poisons or taped to a wooden board for days on end and starved.

How useful is this research?

A huge amount of the research that modern thinking around stress is based on is animal studies, which is very debateable as it ignores the human psychology aspect. And alongside this glaring weakness, it doesn’t actually follow the process of a stressor occurring and then observing the health status of the animal over time, but rather shortcuts time by actually inducing the disease in the animal, then exposing it to torment, and then measuring how the disease progresses.

One thing we do share

Like animals, humans have the capacity to suffer, which is what much of this research seems to really be exploring. But what does extreme suffering in laboratory conditions tell us about the day-to-day stress of your employees?

Can we really use this to inform us about how to help prevent or reduce the struggling of those within our organisations?

I don’t imagine that most of us who use the words stress and are convinced of its link to disease are aware of the animal research foundations that helped formulate much of this thinking. I imagine if more of us were aware of the shaky research underpinning it, we might not be so fearful of this dreaded thing called stress that is apparently making us ill…

By Jonathan Pittam

Mental Health Educator