General Adaptation Syndrome
How it works
Our bodies are programmed to respond to stress as a normal function. However, when pushed too far, or for too long, our systems can begin to break down. General Adaptation Syndrome, so-termed by stress researcher Hans Selye, is a pattern of biological response to long-term or overwhelming stress. There are three stages of General Adaptation Syndrome or GAS: Alarm reaction, the resistance stage, and exhaustion stage.
In the alarm reaction, we perceive an immediate threat (the first shakes or rolls of a major earthquake, for example). Our bodies react by activating our sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones. This phenomenon was called the “fight or flight” reaction by physiologist Walter Cannon. During this reaction, the adrenal glands secrete cortical steroids and stress hormones that help the body prepare for defense. This was a vital reaction for our ancestors, who would’ve come face to face with wild animals. But, once the threat was gone (after they had either killed the animal, or run away), their bodies went back to a more normal state of being. Unfortunately for modern day folks, we are hit with constant stressors such as work deadlines, financial hardships, world affairs, health emergencies (Covid-19), etc. Our alarm state is activated a great deal of the time, which may lead to the development of stress-related maladies (Nevid, Rathus & Greene, pg. 140).
How it works
On the resistance stage, a stressor has been present for some time and our bodies begin to adapt. Hormones and the sympathetic nervous systems’ responses are still high, but not as high as in the alarm stages. Our bodies try to repair and rebuild during this stage. However, if stressors continue, or if we encounter new stressors, the final stage of the GAS appears.
The final, or exhaustion, stage is reached when our bodies have had enough. Our heart rate and respiration rate slow. We are prone to developing problems ranging from allergic reaction to heart disease to even death. Chronic stress weakens the immune system, leaving us open to a variety of problems. It may be cortical steroids that are responsible for the suppression of the immune system (though they are also responsible for helping the body deal with stress to begin with). They have only a very small effect when they’re secreted now and then. But if secreted continuously, as in prolonged stress, they can interfere with the development of the antibodies that fight off infections, cancers and more (Nevid, Rathus & Greene, pg. 141).
We cannot get away from the stressors in our everyday, modern life. There will be times when our “fight or flight” reaction will be activated, and our bodies will, of course, respond. But if we stay in that activated state, or even in the lesser resistance stage, we can do harm to our bodies by injuring our immune systems. And if we reach the exhaustion stage, we face the possibility of doing damage to our internal organs. It is imperative that we seek help when our stressors become acute or prolonged so that we don’t deplete ourselves to exhaustion.