The precise psychobiological mechanisms leading to chronic physiological stress responses have not been sufficiently explained, although stress is a major risk factor for disease and early death. A problem for conventional stress theory is that most of these responses seem to occur in situations without (sufficient) actual stressful events. These include loneliness, a history of early life stress, low social economic status, discrimination, lack of natural environment, having an old, obese or otherwise ‘unfit body’ and much more. The generalized unsafety theory of stress (GUTS) radically reverses stress theory by stating that the stress response is a default response, which is always ‘on’ unless inhibited by perceived safety: an evolutionarily old, largely unconscious process. The chronic stress response is a prolonged disinhibition of the default stress response (DSR) due to insufficient safety. Safety factors appear to be manifold but understanding of their nature and significance is at a very early stage.
Currently, there is an urgent need for extensive multidisciplinary theoretical exploration and inventory of safety factors of animals and humans, to detect multiple potential inhibitors of chronic stress responses and test them. It is also necessary to explain how chronic stress responses associated with a common chronic stressor, work stress, are due to the long stressor-free situations between, but unconsciously associated with, stressors, in real life and lab (virtual reality)
Taken together, exploring the multilevel ‘inhibitors’ of the DSR is crucial for the further development of stress theory and to understand chronic stress responses, and is a prerequisite for developing effective prevention strategies.