Coping with modern life

Professor Dan Davis FRSB reflects on the stresses of science and the science of stress

May 27th 2022

It feels like we’re living in stressful times. As biologists we know that stress physically affects the human body, including raising levels of cortisol in the blood. Cortisol prepares the body for stressful situations by helping establish, for example, the body’s fight-or-flight response: increasing our blood sugar levels and dilating blood vessels in muscles to prepare the body for immediate action.

Cortisol also quietens the immune system, perhaps to prevent inflammation when the body is under stress, and perhaps also because an immune reaction isn’t of immediate importance in a fight-or-flight situation and energy is best used elsewhere. Cortisol can affect the activity of around one in five of all human genes.

Of course, stress is part of everyday life and isn’t all negative – it can help us perform well and be the best we can. Our modern understanding of stress began in 1936, when Hans Selye discovered that rats exposed to different types of harmful situations – surgery, drugs or cold temperature – showed a similar response whatever the problem. Later, when Selye was asked if he thought modern life was too stressful he replied: “People often ask me that question, sometimes comparing our lives with that of the caveman … They forget that the caveman worried about being eaten by a bear while he was asleep, or about dying of hunger, things that few people worry about much today … It’s not that people suffer more stress today. It’s just that they think they do.”

Still, we each need to find ways of dealing with unwanted stress. And in our busy lives this has never been more important. Science itself can provide an escape from life’s stresses, and in this issue there’s wonder in the genetics of cats, rewilded landscapes and the life living on and around hydrothermal vents. But also, in the back pages of this issue is our new regular feature: The Biologist’s biochemical colouring-in page. Of course, we can’t claim that colouring in a picture of a molecule can help with stress, but you’ll never know unless you try. Send us your finished pages via the RSB’s social media channels or via and we’ll showcase the best. Because another thing that might help with stress is being part of a community.


Dan Davis FRSB is chair of the Editorial Board of The Biologist and professor of immunology at The University of Manchester