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General Adaptation Syndrome: How Your Body Responds to Stress


In modern-day lives, stress is an unwanted friend that accompanies us everywhere. From competitive school environments and peer dynamics for kids, to adulting responsibilities, relationships, and work for grown-ups, stressors are omnipresent in our lives. While it may be impossible to remove stressors, it is possible to manage stress better and prevent physical and mental health concerns induced by stress such as insomnia, irritability, and mental fatigue. Stress is generally thought of as mental pressure, but it causes physiological changes as well. Understanding our bodily reactions to stress can help us identify signs of chronic stress, and adapt strategies that can mitigate the negative consequences of stress.

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What is General Adaptation Syndrome?

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is a three-stage process that describes the physical changes that your body goes through when facing a stressor. This process was proposed by a Hungarian scientist and researcher, Hans Selye. From his research experiments, Selye concluded that the body has a typical stress response. It is manifested in a series of physiological changes that affect the whole body. These changes occur in the following three stages:

  • Alarm Reaction Stage
  • Resistance Stage
  • Exhaustion Stage

Let us look at what happens to our bodies during these stages in more detail.

The Stages in GAS

Each of the three stages is characterized by a unique set of physiological changes that the body undergoes. These may have a long-term negative effect.

1. The Alarm Reaction Stage

The alarm reaction stage refers to the initial symptoms experienced by the body when it is under stress. Any stressor, whether real or imagined, alerts your brain to stimulate the autonomic nervous system. The fight-or-flight response to stress occurs in this stage to prepare the body to deal with the stressor. A distress signal is sent to the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which in response enables the release of hormones called glucocorticoids.

This hormone, in turn, triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone). They give the body a boost of energy. Your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and blood sugar levels also go up. Other bodily changes include your muscles becoming tense, a sharpening of your hearing, a lowering of body temperature, an increase in your peripheral vision, and a temporary dampening of pain perception.

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2. The Resistance Stage

The resistance stage is the second stage and occurs after an alarm reaction. After the initial shock of the stressor and the fight-and-flight response, the body begins to repair itself. The body starts to thwart the changes that occurred during the previous stage. It counteracts or resists physiological changes. The parasympathetic nervous system is employed, the body releases a lower amount of cortisol, your heart rate drops to normal and blood pressure also normalizes. Although the body enters the recovery stage, it remains on high alert for a while. If you overcome the stressful situation, your body continues to repair itself and reaches the pre-stress levels of hormones.

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However, the normalization of hormones and bodily vitals only occurs if the stressor passes. If the stressor persists for a long duration and does not resolve quickly, your body begins to adapt to the threat and goes through changes to cope with stress that you may not be aware of. It can have a highly negative long-term impact on the body, and you may experience permanently elevated blood pressure and glucose levels. You might think that you are managing your stress well, but your bodily functioning reveals the real story.

The length of this resistance depends on how intense the stressor is, and how much energy the body has in reserve. If it continues for too long without any breaks from the stressful situation, it can lead to symptoms like irritability, poor concentration, and frustration. Eventually, it culminates in the exhaustion stage.

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3. Exhaustion Stage

As discussed in the previous section, this stage is the result of prolonged stress. It takes a toll on your body, and it becomes drained of any physical, mental, or emotional resources to combat stress. The signs and symptoms of exhaustion include fatigue, burnout, anxiety and depression, and decreased stress tolerance. Entering this stage of stress is very risky as it poses the threat of developing serious health conditions.

Hans Selye’s Research on Stress Hans Selye was an endocrinologist, whose inspiration for GAS came from experiments conducted on mice. He injected mice with different extracts from various organs of the body. He realized that all of them caused the same physical symptoms, and he also realized that humans suffering from diseases exhibit similar symptoms. He initially termed these symptoms as the effects of ‘noxious agents’, but later on, as he progressed with his research, he adopted the term stress.

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Selye also distinguished between ‘Eustress’ and ‘Distress’. Distress refers to the commonly known negative stress response, which stems from being overwhelmed by demands, losses, and perceived threats. It has a detrimental effect on individuals, generates physical and psychological maladaptation, and poses serious health risks. Generally, when one says stress, it is this kind of stress that is being referred to. Conversely, Eustress refers to a positive stress response. It results from challenging but enjoyable and worthwhile tasks. It has a beneficial effect as it can generate a feeling of fulfilment, achievement, and a sense of growth. Examples of situations that can cause eustress are – participation in an athletic event or giving a speech.

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Causes for GAS to occur

As we have seen, the reason for the body to undergo GAS stages is due to a stressor. Although Hans Selye’s research was limited to physical stressors, such as cold temperatures or physical overexertion, it is now generally understood that it can be caused by psychological stress as well. A few life events that may launch a person’s body into GAS are relationship breakdowns, loss of loved ones, medical problems, financial troubles, sudden unemployment, divorces, and more.

Read More: From Job Loss to Mental Distress: Unemployment Impacts on Mental Health

Tips to Manage Stress

Stress is a part of life and stressors are sometimes unavoidable. However, we can manage stress by engaging in physical activity and relaxation techniques. It is vital to find time to take care of oneself in the face of stress, or it can turn into chronic health conditions. A few tips and techniques to mitigate the effect of stressors in your life include meditation and other relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, guided meditation, and getting a massage. Relaxing and warm baths may also prove to be helpful temporarily. Engaging in physical exercise, especially methods that have a calming effect such as yoga, is extremely beneficial. Surrounding yourself with friends and loved ones and communicating with them when you are undergoing highly stressful situations can also be cathartic and relieve some symptoms of stress.

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