The History of Stress In Very Small Bites: 3

WilliamJamesAmerican psychologist William James (1842–1910) is credited with an important contribution to the understanding of stress and the interplay of physical manifestations and emotions. In his most important book, The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1 and Vol. 2 , James sets out the theory that bodily expression of stress, such as trembling or faster heart beat, precede rather than follow emotion. This view matters in that it seeks to tie emotions directly and perhaps causally with bodily expressions. Whether one comes before the other is less important than the fact that the physical and the emotional appear inextricably connected, in the wholeness of the human experience. What, James asks, would grief be “without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone?” Not an emotion, James answers, for a “purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” (p. 1068).

Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, we are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, we are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, we are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect… that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble… (Principles of Psychology, pp. 1065–6).

IndustrialRevolutionContemporary to James is the novel view of physical fatigue as both a mental and physiological phenomenon. By the late 19th century, the word fatigue was being used in connection with mental hygiene as pertaining to work performance and industrial efficiency. The industrial revolution, realizing that efficiency and high productivity could create significant psychological problems, required a re-organization of the workplace that reduced symptoms of emotional and mental instability and enhanced the workers’ adjustment to what at the time were far less than ideal working conditions. The profit motive fostered this seemingly unlikely marriage between productivity and mental health. Industry became concerned with the loss in industrial efficiency and sought to prevent it by improving the workers’ physical and mental health. This development led to the new disciplines of organizational psychology and ergonomics, the design of equipment that minimizes negative health consequences.