Sunday, April 6, 2014


I recently read about how the medical researcher Hans Seyle got started on his life’s work in the area of stress and the impact that chronic stress has on the human body. His research findings about how stress impacts the body are fascinating and form the basis for an enormous chunk of preventive medicine. I could say a lot about that, but instead I want to share the story of how he wound up researching stress in the first place. There’s a terrific lesson in it about finding direction.

For those of you who have not heard of Seyle, he was a Hungarian doctor and chemist born in Hungary in 1907. He went to McGill University in Montreal in the 1930s, where he worked as an assistant professor and began doing research in his chosen field of endocrinology (the study of hormones). One of his colleagues in a lab down the hall from Seyle isolated a substance made by the ovaries and was wondering what the heck it was used for in the body. Curious, Seyle decided to run some tests with the mysterious substance on rats. But here’s the thing:  Seyle was not so hot at dealing with rodents. When he attempted to inject them with the substance, he would miss with the needle or drop them or generally mishandle them. They often escaped, and he would wind up chasing them around the lab, trying to herd them with a broom, trying to catch them and put them back in their cages, and generally terrorizing the heck out of the beasts.

After a few months of this, Seyle ran tests on his hapless subjects and discovered that all of them, both the rats injected with the odd ovarian substance as well as those not injected with it (in the control group), had ulcers, enlarged adrenal glands, and compromised immune systems. The one significant factor that all the rats had in common was being mishandled by Seyle. Long-story-short, Seyle realized that he had stressed the rats out and that stress had resulted in detrimental physical consequences for the rats. He was the first to use the term “stress” in this context and is thus often credited with “inventing stress.” (Nothing is said about the stress he experienced chasing the rata around his lab. I wonder if he developed adrenal fatigue as well.)

His next set of tests took him into the realm of what would become his life’s work. He purposely placed some of the rats in unpleasant situations, like putting their cages in the basement next to the noisy boiler or on the roof where it was cold, while leaving other rats in comfort. It didn’t take long for Seyle to start coming up with research findings about the impact of chronic stress on the rats and to translate his findings to apply to the impact of chronic stress on people. He developed his now-famous General Adaptation Syndrome Theory of stress, which states that the effect of stress on the body has three stages:  alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. He proved with his research that the human body is not designed for prolonged periods of stress (lingering “fight or flight” mode for months or years). When stress continues over time, and the body continues to respond over time, biochemical processes take place that cause disease. The adrenal system eventually becomes exhausted and simply can’t function effectively. You can read more about adrenal fatigue and the negative impact of prolonged stress on your body if you are interested. The bottom line is that it’s important to relax – just let things go.

I don’t want to get into the problem of chronic stress right now, that’s not what prompted me to write about Seyle today. What prompted me to write is that I love the fact that he found his calling because he was not good at handling lab rats. I imagine him trying to coax an escaped rat out from behind a desk or a refrigerator with that broom, thinking how hopeless he was at managing his subjects, wishing he could do a better job, realizing that he was spending too much time re-capturing his rats, all of that. And while he was struggling with his personal challenges as a medical researcher, little did he know that he was setting the stage for the most important work of his life. Although he never won a Nobel, he was nominated more than once. His contribution to the medical field was enormous.

Basically, Seyle thought he was going in one direction, when in fact he was going in another. He discovered himself and the contribution he could make as a result of recognizing his flaws, headed down the trail of success by starting out on the trailhead of his failings. It reminds me that when we fall short of the mark, that’s a good time to step back and look to see where life might be taking us because it could be so completely not what we had thought. And hey, don’t stress about it.

Hans Seyle (without the rodents).

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