General adaptation syndrome: Understanding stress, one step at a time

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

How does it work?

A medical doctor named Hans Selye formulated the theory of general adaptation syndrome.  He formulated a three-stage process which the body undergoes when subjected to stress.  Hans Selye came up with this theory when he was experimenting with rat subjects.  The scientists found that the rats displayed physical responses to different stressors.

He also found that the body makes use of the hormones to combat stress.  The body tries to resolve the problem fast by releasing hormones that manage stress.  The struggle of the body to produce hormones during a stressful situation is the main theme of general adaptation syndrome.  It was also observed that the body has a limit in fighting stress and the continuous exertion of stress can compromise its ability to fight stressful situations.

He finally concluded that it is the body’s way of adapting to a known threat and equipping itself better to survive.  His papers were published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology in the year 1946.

Before discussing the different stages of general adaptation syndrome, let us first understand what stress is.

What is stress?

A feeling of physical and emotional tension is called stress.  It is considered to be the body’s response to a challenge.  To understand this phenomenon, psychologists have divided stress into three types namely acute stress, episodic stress, and chronic stress.

Acute stress

It is considered to be the most widely experienced form of stress since it is caused by daily demands encountered on a daily basis.  Acute stress cannot always be related to something bad.  It can occur at any time such as while riding a roller coaster where both stress and excitement both are involved.  When the roller coaster gets higher and longer, the excitement ends and the stress takes over where you may feel that the roller coaster ride to end soon or even feel that it was a bad choice in the first place.

Finally, when the roller coaster ride is over, you end up experiencing the effects of acute stress such as psychological and/or physiological symptoms.  Since it occurs at a very short period of time, the symptoms are experienced only after the stress has already accumulated.  These symptoms include emotional distress such as depression, anxiety, anger, as well as physical problems such as headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, etc.

Episodic stress

This occurs when you frequently experience acute stress.  This type of stress is experienced by people who make unrealistic and unreasonable demands and when those demands are not fulfilled, it adds up to the stress levels leading them to cause self-inflictions upon themselves.   This type of stress is mainly associated with people having type A personality such as people who are aggressive, demanding, competitive, and ambitious.  All these behaviors lead to situations of acute stress quite often leading to episodic stress.  Some of the symptoms related to episodic stress faced by type A persons include:

  • Depression, anxiety disorders, as well as emotional distress that lasts for a prolonged period of time and can also occur frequently.
  • Constantly worrying.
  • Constant physical symptoms such as headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, as well as heart palpitations.
  • May lead to heart problems such as coronary artery disease.


Chronic stress

The exact opposite of acute stress is called chronic stress.  It is never exciting or thrilling but is always dangerous and unhealthy.  Chronic stress can tear a person apart with no control over oneself.  Long-term exposure to stressors can lead to chronic stress.  Some of the causes include traumatic experience, unhappy marriage, poverty, a stressful job, relationship conflicts, etc.

The stressors are usually unrelenting and continuous.  It just keeps on adding up as time passes and never subsides.  Facing these stressors regularly can lead to a person becoming violent, self-harm, and even attempt suicide.  It may even lead to medical conditions such as heart attack, stroke, and cancer.

Chronic stress can also lead to psychological problems such as clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Some of the physical signs and symptoms of chronic stress include headache, pounding heart, dry mouth, diaphoresis, stomach ache, as well as frequent urination.

Impact of stress on your health

As discussed in the previous section, stress can cause serious effects on your health.  The effects may range from physical as well as psychological problems.  Any type of stress such as financial problems, relationship problems, job-related stress, etc can have a lasting effect on the body.  These stressors put immense pressure on the body to get rid of them through releasing hormones that can relieve these stressors.

Stress can occur in any form such as positive or negative and solely depends on the context.  The body reacts to both the types of stress, be it good or bad.  The only problem is that it just does not recognize which stress is good and which is bad.

Any physical or emotional feeling such as worry, regret, anticipation, panic, causes the body to react.  These can cause stress levels to skyrocket and impact your body in a big way.  Changes in lifestyle and environment or even recounting a past event can cause stress.

Effect of stress on the body

Stress can affect the body in such an extreme way that you can notice an immediate and noticeable change in the body.  For example, you will struggle to sleep the night before an important meeting or a date the next day.  You may experience sweating in your palms when you are nervous and you may even lose your appetite if you are anxious.

All these effects may be noticed by you, but there is much happening inside your body, which you fail to recognize such as increasing levels of stress hormones called cortisol.

This may cause blood sugar to rise, change the gut environment, as well as alter the production of hormones by the thyroid gland.  Various studies have indicated that chronic stress is related to several health conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, infertility, acne, tension headaches, hypertension, anxiety and depression, sleep disorders, autoimmune disorders, asthma, obesity, as well as addiction.

Effect of stress on the brain

When you first experience stress, the hippocampus of the brain processes the thought patterns and sends messages to various hormonal glands.  Cortisol is considered to be the main hormone that responds when the body reacts to acute stress.  Regular spikes in cortisol levels every day speeds up the aging process.

This does not mean that we should avoid stress altogether.  Certain types of stress caused due to exercising, working towards a goal, can actually benefit the body.  These are called positive stressors that are identified by the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex.  This leads to alterations in behavioral and physiological responses.  These changes enable you to handle similar situations better as you learn from them.

Various Stages of general adaptation syndrome

Now that we have understood what stress is and what are its consequences, let us discuss the stages of general adaptation syndrome.  It should be noted that Hans Selye formulated this theory by applying physical stress and not psychological stressors.

Alarm Reaction

This is considered the first stage of the general adaptation syndrome.   The experiments were conducted on rat subjects.  The reaction occurred between 6 and 48 hours following the administration of the nocuous agent.   It is believed that during this stage, the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is activated and the adrenal gland secretes the stress hormone called cortisol and adrenaline.

It was observed that the rats underwent significant physical changes including body fat reduction, shrinking of organs such as liver, thymus, and lymph glands, and there was a noticeable change in body temperature.

It was found that this stage prepared the body to either fight against this situation or run away from the situation, which was termed as the fight-or-flight response.  Thus it was concluded that this stage is an alarm reaction of the body when subjected to a stressful situation.


During the second stage of the general adaptation syndrome, resistance takes over.  Once the alarm reaction is phased out, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system acts against the change that has occurred due to a stressful situation and tries to restore the normal state.  This helps the body to function normally.  The restoration process is called the resistance stage.  It was determined that these changes occurred after 48 hours following the stressful event.  During the resistance stage, the stress hormone levels return to normal, but the effects caused by the initial spike leads to increased glucose levels as well as higher blood pressure.  Due to the decrease in stress hormones, the body’s focus shifts from alertness to repair.


This is the final phase of the general adaptation syndrome.  During this stage, the body has undergone tremendous stress during alarm reaction as well as the resistance stage.  All the energy stored in the body are depleted and it enters the exhaustion stage.  If the initial stressor has passed, the body continues to recover, but in a scenario where the initial stressor returns, the body no longer has the energy to cope with continued stress.  Once the body is exhausted all its energy, there is a lot of physical damage caused on the body leading to aging at a faster pace.

Natural Stress Relievers to Try

Exercise and Yoga

Exercise helps the body release endorphins chemicals in the brain.  This is helpful in relieving anxiety situations.  It can also improve insulin sensitivity and make a person aware of hunger levels.  It can enhance your sleep and provide the important rest that the body and brain requires.  Practicing yoga has proved to be beneficial in managing several symptoms of stress.  Various studies have suggested that practicing yoga with soothing background music helps the body to relax and rejuvenate accordingly.  It is believed that following this method can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and improve recovery time.


Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years to improve well-being.  Since meditation involves a particular breathing exercise, it has been proved to be beneficial even scientifically.  Meditation can be followed in various other forms to lower physiological responses to stress.  It is believed that various emotional and physical problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, attention deficits, as well as weight gain can be dealt with meditation.


This is a traditional Chinese therapy used to treat various health conditions.  It has been gaining popularity as it has been used to treat many stress-related conditions.  It is believed that activating certain pressure points on the body can cure several physical and psychological conditions.  It has been scientifically proven that acupuncture is one of the best stress relievers, as it can help regulate the nervous system which in turn can manage the hormonal system.

Eat a healthy diet

ashwagandha stress reliefIt is believed that eating healthy food filled with essential vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, healthy fats, antioxidants, as well as amino acids can help your brain handle stress better.  List of foods that can relieve stress naturally include:

  • Foods rich in B vitamins such as green leafy vegetables, fish, as well as cultured dairy products.
  • Calcium and magnesium-rich foods such as avocados, nuts, legumes, leafy green vegetables.
  • Foods rich in protein to improve neurotransmitter functions.
  • Foods that provide healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids such as sardines, avocados, nuts, olive oil, and coconut oil.

Practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Since anxiety and stress has become a part of our daily life, it is important to find a way to manage these problems.  Cognitive behavioral therapy helps to reduce these problems in a systematic way.  This therapy focuses on changing your thoughts toward a particular situation.  For example, it is common to become nervous while facing an interview, but cognitive behavioral therapy helps to change this behavior by changing your thoughts.  The therapy helps you to embrace your fears and challenge situations, which enables you to be better prepared when facing the same situation.

Adding herbs and essential oils to your diet

Several herbs and essential oils are helpful in providing a calming effect on the brain.  This is necessary to improve anxiety symptoms.  Some of the herbs that are helpful include ginseng, ashwagandha, holy basil, etc.  Essential oils such as peppermint, lavender, frankincense, myrrh, etc are also used to deal with stress-related problems.

Final Thoughts

I think we have a clear understanding now that stress not only affects psychologically but can also affect the body physically.  It is difficult to eliminate stress altogether, but it is definitely possible to limit the stressors that are within our grasp.  It should also be noted that different people react differently to particular stress.  A situation that can cause anxiety to you may hardly affect your friend, as this may not be so serious to your friend.  The point to be noted here is that stress can be positive or negative depending on the way you conceive it.  Avoiding triggers can be helpful in limiting various stressful situations.  Working towards it would be a wise choice.



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