Stress denotes a broad range of biological and psychological reactions to environmental influences; as such, it is an essential component of the equipment that enables man to survive in an hostile environment. However, stress as a traditional method of adaptation has become inadequate in the psychological, social, and economic circumstances of modern society; it is this inadequate adaptation to change that increases the risk of disease. Certain psychosocial situations are potentially pathogenic because they induce in some individuals inadequate adaptational reactions. Stress is induced when a situation is interpreted by the individual, consciously or not, as a threat to his goals, integrity or well-being. Thus noise, dirt, bad air-conditioning, quarrelsome colleagues, lack of personal contact, new responsibility may be stressful to one individual but not to another.
Too much stress is associated with numerous physical and mental disturbances, for example of appetite, sleep, energy level, self esteem, memory, decision-making, concentration, as well as clinical mental and physical conditions. Neurosis, depression and anxiety disorders are aggravated by stress.
Numerous studies attest that stressful life events such as death of a spouse or parent, marriage, divorce, desertion, loss of employment, birth of a handicapped child, etc, often precipitate physical as well as emotional illnesses. For example, the death rate of widows and widowers during the first year of bereavement has been shown to be 10 times that of other persons of the same age; divorced persons, in the year following their divorce, have an illness rate approximately 12 times that of married persons of similar age and situation. Young married women have exceptionally high referral rates to medical services, particularly for depressive and neurotic conditions, which raises many questions regarding the demands made on the housewife with a young family in a mobile, urban society. More in keeping with expectations are the high referral rates of the elderly to the psychogeriatric services because of disorders directly attributable to recent social problems, often of a kind that, with a little support from services, relatives, or neighbours, could have been remedied. Moreover, there are grounds for supposing that psychosocial stresses precipitate all kinds of illness, not simply mental ones. It has also, however, been very clearly demonstrated that people with depression and with schizophrenia, in the months immediately preceding the onset of their illness, experienced more stressful events than did a control group followed up for the same period.