The classic A-type personality is:
Somebody who is engaged in a chronic struggle to achieve more -- in less time.
Someone who is often aggressive, hostile, demanding.
Someone who is always setting deadlines and quotas.
"You can tell the A-type. He's the one who's studying flash cards. While he's jogging." -- from a speech by Dr. Barton Kraff of the Psychiatric Institute at the USDA Stress symposium.
Last year Hans Selye, grand vizier of stress, made 108 lecture appearances outside of Montreal, where he is Emeritus Professor at the University of Montreal and head of the International Institute of Stress and the Hans Selye Foundation. He has, he says casually, "stopped counting" lectures in Montreal. He is also writing three new books. "Oh, but of course that is not all," he says with a peculiarly Gallic shrug. "I am a racehorse. I am a Super-A."
On the surface, at least, there is less resemblance to Secretariat than you might think. Selye looks frail. He is slight and a hip problem reduces his walk to careful, mincing steps. His white hair is thinning. But ah, the twinkle in his brown eyes, the self-deprecating wit at the tip of his tongue, the flashes of vision, the compleat scientist . . .
Seyle is the pioneering research physician, endocrinologist and biochemist who loosed the concept of "stress" on the world nearly 35 years ago, and thereby changed the direction -- even the very face -- of medicine in his own lifetime. It was Hans Selye who first documented the body's physiological responses to external physical or emotional pressures. He called it the "general adaptation syndrome," the body's biochemical way of coping with outside stimuli generalized through a pathway he called "stress."
But Wednesday afternoon, Hans Selye was suffering form just a spot of jet lag.
Now, do not misunderstand. This 73-year-old peripatetic scientist, who is certain he would wither away if he eased up on his marathon schedule, was not having any kind of stress-related reaction.
In fact, Selye says he acutally gets off on stress. In retrospect, he feels he probably made a mistake by calling it "stress" in the first place. Because now he must talk about "eustress" (the good kind, so to speak) and "distress" (the more destructive variety). Of course, one man's "eu" (from euphoria) can be another's "dis" and vice versa, just to keep things from being too simple.
All Seyle really needed was a nap. He'd left Montreal at 4 that morning, changed planes in Boston and arrived at National Airport at about 10:30. He was whisked off at once to the Department of Agriculture Graduate School's day-long symposium on "Stress in the Workplace." He met with reporters, psychologists, well-wishers, fans, sat at the head table during lunch and listened to other people talk about the things that he started. Then gave his own hour-long keynote address to the conference.
You'd be tired too.
That Selye maintains a pace that would have many a younger man in a cardiac care unit post haste is, he says, simply because that is the way he likes it.
Never mind that this jetting around can be tiring. Never mind that his voice has developed a quaver that, along with his German-Hungarian-French Canadian accent, sometimes makes him virtually impossible to understand. Never mind that he is in almost constant pain from a pair of unsuccessful hip operations. Said he to a rapt auidence of about 300, "It hurts like the devil, but it doesn't stop me from getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning and coming down here to talk to you . . . because," and he pauses for effect, "because I get pleasure from it."
He is vain. He thrives on all the attention, but professes regret that he is often credited with the work of others in the field he virtually invented -- well, if not out of whole cloth, then with the unwitting help of a couple of laboratory rats and a more or less accidential experiment. In response to a flattering introduction he will say, "I almost feel impertinent in my own august presence."
He is at once warm and dispassionate. He has been married three times and has five children. He speaks affectionately of his second wife, an American, but calls his present French Candaian wife "the best."
Selye was born in Vienna in 1907, where his father had been the royal physician to the Imperial Hungarian Hussars. His governesses were French and English and later he was taught exclusively by tutors until medical school at the German University in Prague. He came to Johns Hopkins University in 1929 and went on to Canada teaching both at McGill and the University of Montreal, where he spent 32 years as director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery.
His 38 books have been translated into 35 languages and he is almost childishly gleeful that the latest translation is in Arabic, with the Hebrew not far off. "There isn't too much they can agree on," he says, "but here is a code of behavior. . . ."
Stressors may be as varied as a third degree burn or a fight with a spouse. As perceived by the body both are "stress." The reaction may be a peptic ulcer or a liver cancer depending on how the individual body attempts to cope. "But," says Selye wistfully, "the doctor will se an ulcer and treat an ulcer and next see a liver cancer and never make the connection."
There were 10,000 articles on stress written last year. Selye has a collection of 150,000 such articles and books. His first paper was less than two pages. "First it didn't have any reaction at all," he says. "But then, ah but then, somebody attacked it. . . ."
Boredom can and often does produce a stress reaction. "One thing I simply cannot stand," says Selye, "is a faculty meeting."
Aging is simply the wear and tear caused by stress and the body's reaction to it. "Fight for your highest Attainable aim But do not put up Resistance in vain." -- Hans Selye
Selye has also written a French version of this quatrain which is, greatly oversimplified, of course, the thesis of one recent project of Selye the scientist -- to devise a "code of behavior based on the laws of nature" that will help humanity to adapt to stress, making the reaction more of the "eu" variety rather than the peptic ulcer or cardiac accident type of "dis" reaction.
He insists that his prescription ("I am a doctor, after all, and I have a prescription") does not conflict with religion, "only, perhaps, with religiosity." But he admits he's had serious trouble with the Golden Rule. "I just couldn't love my neighbor as myself," he says cheerfully. "It doesn't work. I tried and I felt like a miserable sinner."
So, for the purposes of better coping with stress, Hans Selye has revised the Golden Rule. "Try," his new rule directs, "to earn your neighbor's love."
He calls the philosophy "altruistic egoism," and says simply that with its other two parts it is a code of behavior in keeping with all religions phrased in a way that can be accepted in the language of the 1980s.
That, along with his first rule -- "run in your own direction at your own pace" -- he hopes will point a way for humanity to cope.
Not unsurprisingly, Selye is also researching the effects of stress on aging. "Stress can," he says, "vastly increase the ravages of time." Some of his work with rats seems to indicate a future where the aging stress can be reduced. "A good first step," he suggests.
He is asked by a member of the audience if the ability to cope with stress increases or decreases with age.
Hans Selye smiles. "Ask me at 80," he answers.