3 stages of stress response

The General Adaptation Syndrome (3 stages of stress response) 

Fatigue, insomnia, irritability, poor concentration, confusion, frustration, and anxiety. Both the physical and psychological effects of stress are numerous and often easily recognizable. But do you also know what the different stages of stress are? Coined by Hans Selye in 1950, the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) is the three-stage process that describes the changes the body goes through after being prompted by a stressor. 

So what are the stages of stress response? Selye broke the stress response process down into three separate and consequential stages: 

  • the alarm stage
  • the resistance stage
  • and the exhaustion stage

Understanding how your body responds in each stage enables you to more adequately identify signs of chronic stress in yourself and may help you cope with stress more effectively. 

Read more: How to handle stress at work >> 

What is the general adaptation syndrome? 

GAS is the three-stage process that describes the pattern of responses that the body goes through when under stress. 

It was introduced by Hans Selye, an Austro-Hungarian endocrinologist, and he explained it as the body’s way of adapting to a perceived threat to better equip it to survive. 

During an experiment with lab rats, he somewhat serendipitously observed that rats displayed a similar set of physical responses to several different stressors. With additional research, Selye concluded that these changes were not an isolated case, but rather the typical response to stress. 

Selye’s study was limited to physical stressors, but it is now understood that life events that induce psychological stress cause the same reactions as were seen in Selye’s study. 

The sort of factors that can cause someone to experience stress and GAS include: 

  • relationship breakdowns 
  • losing a loved one 
  • losing a job 
  • constant deadlines 
  • medical problems 
  • money troubles 

As mentioned earlier, there are three successive stages: 

  1. Alarm – The alarm reaction stage of GAS happens when you first perceive something as stressful. It is also referred to as the fight-or-flight response. 
  2. Resistance – The resistance stage is the period in which your body tries to restore a state of homeostasis. This stage cannot be maintained indefinitely as your body’s resources will eventually deplete. 
  3. Exhaustion – During the exhaustion stage your body has depleted its energy resources by continually trying—but failing—to recover from the initial alarm stage. Once your body reaches the exhaustion stage, it is no longer equipped to fight stress. 

Not everybody experiences all three stages, which depends on how long and how often you are exposed to stress. And while the name “alarm”-stage might sound alarming, it is only the last stage that must (and can) be avoided. 

Now let us take a look at what happens in each stage. 

The first stage of stress: the alarm stage of the general adaptation syndrome 

This is the stage we are most familiar with. It is the first sign of general adaptation syndrome and is also known as the fight-or-flight response—the survival mechanism that allows you to react quickly to life-threatening situations. 

Any physical, emotional, or mental upset can put the alarm reaction in motion, triggering an instantaneous reaction by the body to combat the stressor. Your brain sends an emergency signal to other parts of your body and your nervous system prepares to fight or flight: 

  • Focus improves. 
  • Heart rate increases. 
  • Pupils dilate. 
  • Blood pressure rises. 
  • Blood sugar levels go up. 
  • Cortisol is released by the adrenal gland. 
  • You receive a boost of adrenaline and noradrenaline, which increases energy. 

Bodily reactions like your cheeks flushing, feeling warm, and beads of sweat dripping from your forehead are common. You can also feel a lump in your throat or a pit in your stomach. 

If the stress is acute, you will recover without any detrimental effect. In fact, the alarm reaction is generally beneficial in the short term as it has protective effects and increases your ability to cope with a stressful scenario. Ever been jolted into finishing a task due to an impending deadline? 

Unfortunately, in today’s society, stressors are often chronic or long-term. This greatly affects your body's resistance, making you more susceptible to illness or disease. 

The second stage of stress: the resistance stage 

After the initial shock, it is now time for your body to counteract the many physiological changes and restore a state of homeostasis—the default state in which the body functions normally. 

Stress hormone levels, such as cortisol and adrenaline, begin to return to normal, enabling your body's focus to shift from alertness to repair. 

But while this decrease in noticeable stress symptoms might lead you to think you can once again handle anything, the results of the hormonal changes are still apparent, including increased glucose levels and higher blood pressure. 

There are two options: 

  1. The stressful situation comes to an end and your body returns to normal. 
  2. The stressor remains. Stress hormones continue to be produced. And your body remains on alert. 

During the resistance stage your body stays activated at a higher metabolic level in an effort to offset the persistent stress and therefore this level cannot be maintained indefinitely. If the stressor persists, your body’s resources will eventually deplete and the ‘conservation withdrawal reaction is initiated. This is a physiological coping reaction that tries to deal with the increased demands of maintaining homeostasis. 

It is important to note that if you do not resolve the stress, your body eventually adapts and learns how to live with a higher stress level. This may sound good, but in reality your body continues to secrete stress hormones and your blood pressure remains elevated. 

And while you may think you are managing stress well, your body’s physical response tells a different (and bleaker) story. If the resistance stage goes on for too long without pauses to offset the effects of stress, this can lead to the exhaustion stage. 

Signs of the resistance stage include: 

  • irritability 
  • frustration 
  • poor concentration fatigue 
  • insomnia 
  • overall malaise 

The third stage of stress: the exhaustion stage 

Have the stressors continued beyond your body’s capacity? Then you reach the final stage of GAS. At this point your body has depleted its energy resources by continually trying but failing to recover from the initial alarm reaction stage. Your body simply cannot fight anymore and shuts down. 

If the original threat passes, your body will continue its recovery, but it no longer has the energy to cope with continued stress in the long term. 

To make matters worse, the physical effects of this stage weaken your immune system and put you at risk for stress-related illnesses and diseases. If you look back, you may notice that the times you developed a cold or flu were immediately after a stressful event. 

Signs of exhaustion include: 

  • fatigue 
  • burnout 
  • depression 
  • anxiety 
  • decreased stress tolerance 

Takeaway 

Our stress response consists of three different stages, namely the alarm stage, the resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage. 

This three-stage process, called general adaptation syndrome, is your body’s way of adapting to a perceived threat to better equip it to survive. 

But while acute stress is not a bad thing, struggling with stressors for long periods can drain your physical, emotional, and mental resources to the point where your body does not have the strength to fight back. 

This is why finding ways to manage the impact of stress on the body and mind is critical. 

Sound therapy, mindfulness, and yoga are some examples of great stress-relieving methods. 

Would you like to discover how to strengthen your internal locus of control and keep work stress at bay? Then take a look at this article in which I share some useful stress management techniques to lower work-related stress. 

article by Eline Stone

Listen to Sonic Yogi sound therapy here, or on your favorite streaming service.

Sources: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2038162/ 

https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-28099-8_753-1 

https://www.psychologistworld.com/stress/general-adaptation-syndrome

1 comment

  • Kelly Harrison
    Kelly Harrison Fletcher, NC (Asheville)
    Thank you for this information regarding stress. Well researched and presented in an easy to read format. After years of my own anxiety and stress in social work and life, I have found a calmer pace in exercise, mindfulness, the Spa channel on SM radio, yoga - which I teach to members of the Reuter Y in Asheville and in corporate wellness. Keep doing what you do!

    Thank you for this information regarding stress. Well researched and presented in an easy to read format. After years of my own anxiety and stress in social work and life, I have found a calmer pace in exercise, mindfulness, the Spa channel on SM radio, yoga - which I teach to members of the Reuter Y in Asheville and in corporate wellness. Keep doing what you do!

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