The Darwinian concept of stress: benefits of allostasis and costs of allostatic load and the trade-offs in health and disease

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2005 Feb;29(1):3-38. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2004.08.009. Epub 2004 Dec 10.


Why do we get the stress-related diseases we do? Why do some people have flare ups of autoimmune disease, whereas others suffer from melancholic depression during a stressful period in their life? In the present review possible explanations will be given by using different levels of analysis. First, we explain in evolutionary terms why different organisms adopt different behavioral strategies to cope with stress. It has become clear that natural selection maintains a balance of different traits preserving genes for high aggression (Hawks) and low aggression (Doves) within a population. The existence of these personality types (Hawks-Doves) is widespread in the animal kingdom, not only between males and females but also within the same gender across species. Second, proximate (causal) explanations are given for the different stress responses and how they work. Hawks and Doves differ in underlying physiology and these differences are associated with their respective behavioral strategies; for example, bold Hawks preferentially adopt the fight-flight response when establishing a new territory or defending an existing territory, while cautious Doves show the freeze-hide response to adapt to threats in their environment. Thus, adaptive processes that actively maintain stability through change (allostasis) depend on the personality type and the associated stress responses. Third, we describe how the expression of the various stress responses can result in specific benefits to the organism. Fourth, we discuss how the benefits of allostasis and the costs of adaptation (allostatic load) lead to different trade-offs in health and disease, thereby reinforcing a Darwinian concept of stress. Collectively, this provides some explanation of why individuals may differ in their vulnerability to different stress-related diseases and how this relates to the range of personality types, especially aggressive Hawks and non-aggressive Doves in a population. A conceptual framework is presented showing that Hawks, due to inefficient management of mediators of allostasis, are more likely to be violent, to develop impulse control disorders, hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, sudden death, atypical depression, chronic fatigue states and inflammation. In contrast, Doves, due to the greater release of mediators of allostasis (surplus), are more susceptible to anxiety disorders, metabolic syndromes, melancholic depression, psychotic states and infection.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Concept Formation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Models, Animal
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Species Specificity
  • Stress, Physiological*