General Adaptation Syndrome

The General Adaptation Syndrome (or GAS) describes the body's short and long-term emotional and physical effects of stress.

The GAS explains the link between stress and health.

Life can be challenging!

With job stress, financial concerns and future uncertainty becoming a norm it seems stress is a part of everyday life.

Stress activates the fight or flight response.

This is the alarm phase of the general adaptation syndrome.

The GAS has three phases, which are:

  • alarm phase
  • stage of resistance
  • exhaustion stage.

Each of these stages describes how stress affects health.

What is the general adaptation syndrome (GAS)

This stress response has served an adaptive function throughout human evolution and serves and makes you more focused and alert.

But today’s causes of stress are largely emotional.

Frustrations at work, the lengthy commute, financial concerns, or relationship difficulties are today's stress causes.

Pretty much anything that annoys, frustrates, or scares you has the potential to activate the stress response and result in warning signs of stress.

Now you may feel that you are adapting to the higher and higher levels of stress. But you may be just living with an unhealthy amount of stress and in the resistance stage of the general adaptation syndrome.

Since chronic stress is deceptive and pervasive, this can mean that you don’t get much downtime or rest.

This can lead to exhaustion and even death - the third stage of the general adaptation syndrome.

Hans Seyle, a founding father of stress research, described that these stressors can affect the body in a 3-stage reaction.

These are known as the:

  • alarm phase
  • stage of resistance
  • exhaustion stage.

These different stages of stress resistance explain how stress affects health.

general adaptation syndrome

The alarm phase of the general adaptation syndrome

In the alarm phase you enter a heightened psychological and physiological arousal, known as the fight or flight response.

In this stage stress hormones are released into the bloodstream.

Adrenaline increases muscle tension, heart rate, and causes a number of other physical effects of stress.

Research suggests that if you can reframe the stressor as a challenge you can reduce cortisol levels. We discuss in more detail how cortisol and stress affect the body.

In the fight or flight response these stress hormones mobilize the body’s resources to fight or flee from the stressful situation.

Now there are some advantages to stress – it can make you more focused and alert!

But stress for too long without adequate rest or recuperation can be bad for you!

Often we are not aware of the tremendous toll that our minds and body pay in the routine, chronic stress that occurs everyday.

The resistance phase of the general adaptation syndrome

In the resistance stage the mind and the body attempt to adapt to the cause of stress.

This could also be known as the adaptation phase.

In this stage, the body remains alert (at a lower level) but continues the normal functions.

In the resistance stage your body is like a car idling along with it's RPM too high - burning too much energy and becoming inefficient.

You may think that you are adapting quite well to the higher stress level.

Things may be moving along smoothly for you. However, you may simply be learning to live with an unhealthy stress level.

You may notice increasing irritability and frustration, or lapses in concentration, or things just seem harder than they used to be.

Stress can boost your concentration and focus, helping you to maintain motivation and discipline. But too much stress can result distress.

Each of us experience stress in different ways but some of the effects of stress include:

Warning Signs of Stress

Physical effects of stress

  • Feelings of nausea
  • Feeling faint or sweaty
  • Headaches or migraine
  • Indigestion, constipation
  • Increased skin irritations e.g. eczema
  • An increase in minor illnesses
  • Feeling tired all the time

Emotional effects of stress

  • Increased forgetfulness
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • A loss of a sense of humor
  • Increased irritability or moodiness
  • Negative thinking
  • Poorer concentration
  • Being constantly worried

When looking at these stress symptoms please keep in mind that these symptoms could be due to other medical problems. It is important for you to visit your local doctor for a complete checkup.

In the resistance stage, whether effective or ineffective, resistance (or adaptation) continues until the person is no longer capable of resistance or the cause of stress passes.

If the body is unable to turn the stress response off to rest and recuperate then irritability, burnout, and fatigue are likely to occur.

There are a number of relaxation techniques that you can do which activate the relaxation response.

The relaxation response counters the physical and emotional effects of stress.

The exhaustion phase of the general adaptation syndrome

It is at this point that exhaustion sets in.

Stress has generally occurred for some time and at this point, resistance can drop off and the activity returns to the point before the emergency.

This stage of the general adaptation syndrome is characterized by issues such as burnout and exhaustion.

The body loses it resistance to fight stress and the body’s immune system that fights off disease and infection is weakened.

See how stress and the immune system are related.

This can lead to a number of stress related illnesses.

We talk more about how does stress affect health.

Rest and recovery is required for the person before the next emergency or stressor.

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