Hans Selye’s Stress Theory

Scope of the topic

During the last decades one major health issue has become more and more important in society: stress. There is nearly no newspaper that does not contain at least a short article blaming stress to be the cause of managers or athletes breaking down. But also students are being put under pressure as the school system consists in one year less time to deal with the same amount of studies. Also employees requirements for graduates contain a wide range of skills and knowledge as well as excellent grades in university. All this sets high pressure to perform on students.

That is the reason why this academic piece of work will deal with the question of what stress in the theory of Hans Selye really is and to which extent it can be contrary to expectations beneficial for students. As every individual can understand something completely different under the term in the first chapter stress is being defined. Building upon this in the second chapter Selye’s theory of the general adaptation syndrome is explained. The third chapter then focuses on what skills are necessary for successful studies and what sources of stress can arise during the time at university. Finally the biological effects of stress as well as effects of Eustress on studies are laid down.

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Stress according to Selye

Nowadays individuals greatest enemy seems to be stress. Everybody talks about it and everybody seems to have it. However according to Hans Selye stress is nothing that needs to be avoided but rather something that is unavoidable. It is a permanent companion in life that benefits not only personal development but also every kind of physical and mental enhancement. Even while sleeping the human body is under stress which is why Selye points out that the only possible moment where stress is not present is when an individual is dead.

Still stress itself is not necessarily dangerous to human beings. Just as the term temperature can mean either hot or cold the term stress entails two subsections in its meaning. Selye differentiated here between positive (Eu-)stress and negative (Di-)stress. The latter being the dangerous stress as it affects the individual physically as well as psychically. To understand the mechanisms in the human body that make individuals feel “stressed” it is important to clarify what exactly stress is.

Selye took over the term “homeostasis” from the Psychologist Walter B. Canon who defined the term as the constant need in the human body for a harmonic equilibrium. This means that the interior circumstances of any organism need to maintain – to a certain degree – in a constant balance although the exterior circumstances change. Consequently the homeostasis can be disturbed by any “stressor” from the environment. Although it might sound simple, Selye reinforces to clearly distinguish between the “stressor” which is everything that causes stress10, and stress itself which is the body’s reaction of trying to maintain the homeostasis.

Medical researches have indicated that the body’s biochemical reaction to any increased impact on it, is always identical although the stressor can be a different one. According to Selye stress is therefore “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. It is unspecific as there exists a wide spectrum of agents that have a different impact on the human body and therefore require different actions to reconstruct the homeostasis. In other words stress is the unspecific demand for something to happen in order to maintain the body’s equilibrium independently of the perception of the stressor as pleasant or unpleasant.

The General Adaptation Syndrome

Hans Selye believed that the stress reaction includes three different phases: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. He defined this phenomenon as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) which contains the direct effect of stress on an individual, the endogenous reaction to fend an impending damage and the endogenous reaction to impend excessive defence measures.

Additionally Selye introduced the normal level of resistance which every individual confronts during daily life. This means that the adaption to routinely upcoming stressors occurs automatically. Only if a stressor overloads the temporary available adaptive resources the body starts giving alarm by activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis.

The alarm stage is divided into two parts, at first the individual finds itself in a phase of shock during which the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is being suppressed. If the impact of the stressor continues the anti shock phase is initialized which corresponds Canons “FightFlight” reaction. Here the perception of a possible stressor activates the hypothalamus which then stimulates the pituitary gland to release hormones that activate the adrenal centre. Their activation leads to a release of epinephrine (adrenaline) and nor epinephrine (nor adrenaline) into the bloodstream which arouses the SNS and prepares the body for action. This leads to a diversion of blood from the intestines and other vegetative activities to the brain and the engrossed muscles.

At the same time the increase of blood pressure, heart rate and respiration rate make it possible for more oxygen to stream to the brain and muscles. Together with the higher rate of sugar in the blood, which provides more energy all these factors lead to a greater physical and mental effort. At the same time the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis is being activated. The stimulation of the hypothalamus leads to the distribution of the corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) which incites the anterior lobe of the pituitary to free adrenocorticotropic hormones (ACTH) into the bloodstream. Consequently the adrenal cortex releases corticosteroids to which among others cortisol can be considered. Cortisol breaks down other substances to generate energy.

Study Skills and Sources of Academic Stress

In order to evaluate the impact stress can have on studies it is necessary to define what makes studies successful and were potential stressors can be seen. The higher education’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) defined key skills that they sense students should have in order to be able to study at European and international level.

It is seen as important to be able to manage oneself not only concerning time management but also being motivated especially motivated to learn. Moreover the ability to learn and to be concentrated as well as a healthy realism in order to reflect and evaluate personal actions need to be present. This also means critical thinking and analysis of current problems. Additionally a student needs to be able to work efficiently in a team by either managing or contributing to it which includes the ability to work with a wide range of individual also from different cultural backgrounds.

Furthermore the business students handbook suggest that stress management needs to be part of a student’s life and therefore not only deal with stressful situations but also recognise it in first place. Ransoming factors that contribute to stress during studies are seen in the lack of sufficient spare time that the individual can use as it pleases.

The time is used up by homework, coaching and the journey to and from university. Another factor is seen in competition. Failure during school or university nowadays is less than some years ago but seems to have more consequences for the individual. Without a good degree the chance for a good employment and therefore a good future go down drastically which leads on one side to higher competition between fellow students and on the other side to pressure to perform. However stress does not only arises when an individual is overcharged, undercharge is just as stressful.

The effects of stress on studies

Considered only from a biological point of view the following aspects need to be behold in order to explain the effects of stress. As already mentioned the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis leads to the release of corticosteroids to which cortisol counts.35 Cortisol itself is the protective bodily response mechanism that prevents the body from overreacting and assists the body to cope with stressors by mobilizing energy.

At first glance this is positive as the emerged energy helps the human body to endure a longer exposure to the stressor. Also studies that
examined the effects of cortisol on memory came to the conclusion that higher levels of cortisol had a positive impact on memory. However it was also proven that long-term exposure to cortisol (glucocorticoids) can have intense negative impacts on the human brain as it leads to hippocampal atrophy. This means a decrease of the hippocampal volume and abnormally high cortisol levels which is a clear sign for chronic stress. At this stage the spatial and episodic memory is being impaired.

On the other hand the arousal of the SNS as described above enable clearly greater mental and physical abilities. However what can be found in most studies concerning stress is that the accentuation is put on excessively high stress levels. These all come to the conclusion that it has negative effects. Moreover as already mentioned Selye distinguished between Eustress and Distress, the latter being the reaction on everything that exceeds the reasonably possible of an individual.

It is therefore necessary to take a close look at the link between Eustress and academic achievements. It was found out that individuals that perceived a certain degree of stress are more productive than as if stress was not present. According to Geraldine O’Sullivan Eustress can be seen as both the process and the product.On an academic level this would mean the successful studying and working for an exam and the positive outcome in productivity as well as successful completion of assignments and exams.O’Sullivan also adverts to the Yerkes-Dodson law which says that “increasing stress is beneficial to performance until some optimum level is reached”.


The aim of this piece of work was it to answer the question of to which extent stress according to Selyes theory can have benefits on a student’s life and therefore on his academic achievements. The first chapter dealt with the idea of stress and it was found out that stress itself is not dangerous as there exist two different kinds Eustress and Distress the latter being the bad stress. It occurs whenever something exceeds the reasonably possible of an individual. Throughout the explanation of the General Adaptation Syndrome it became clear that to a certain degree the human body can deal with stress and that it even benefits mental and physical efforts up to a certain point where cortisol and other hormones begin to damage the brain and the body.

Concluding it can be said that if stress does not exceed the individuals coping resources which makes it Eustress, stress is beneficial to successful studies. Difficulties that come up with this statement are that there does not exist a clear definition of where the coping limit of an individual is reached. Also this limit differs from person to person.


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    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2900534/ July 2010
  3. Cottrell, S. (2010): Studieren Das Handbuch, Spektrum Akademischer Verlag Heidelberg
  4. Duncko, R. (2007): Acute exposure to stress improves performance in eyeblink conditioning and spatial learning tasks in healthy men
  5. Hildenbrand, A. (2005): Stress und Coping, Verlag Hans Huber
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  8. Moshe Zeidner (1992): Sources of academic stress: the case of first year Jewish and Arab college students in Israel, Kulwer Academic Publishers.

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Hans Selye’s Stress Theory. (2016, Sep 29). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/selyes-stress-theory/