History of Stress: Then and Now

Turner_RomaModerna The stress response, which occurs when we are threatened or when we perceive a threat, has a long history in human development.

In its evolution, prehistoric and historic humans have experienced significant environmental stressors. These stressor influenced our genetic development.

The principle of natural selection favored individuals who efficiently conserved energy, endured dehydration, successfully fought potentially lethal agents, anticipated their adversaries, minimized exposure to danger and prevented tissue strain and damage. How do we handle these genetically selected traits today? See it after the jump.

Today, the type of threats most of us face or perceive are vastly different. Modern technological environment and prolonged life expectancy have not deactivated our genetically tuned perception of these stressors, nor the perception that we have a need to defend from them. The expression of these traits however has changed dramatically, as this table illustrates.

Environmental Threats to Survival

Genetic Selection of Survival Trait

Contemporary Expression of Trait/Modern Disease

Combat starvation

Efficient energy conservation

Metabolic syndrome

Combat dehydration

Fluid and electrolyte conservation


Combat injurious agents

Potent immune reaction

Anticipate adversaries Arousal and fear Anxiety

Minimize exposure to danger

Social withdrawal Depression

Prevent tissue strain and damage

Retain tissue integrity

Pain syndromes
Fatigue syndromes

Table adapted from: Stress and Disorders of the Stress System by George P. Chrousos. Posted: 08/31/2009; Nat. Rev. Endocrinol. 2009;5(7):374-381. © 2009 Nature Publishing Group