General Adaption Syndrome: How We React to Stress

30 January, 2021
When we face a stressful situation, our bodies react in a very clear way. The danger for our physical and psychological health develops when these stressors become a constant in our lives. We'll take a closer look in this article!

General adaption syndrome is an explanation of how our bodies react to stressful situations.

This theory, outlined by psychologist Hans Selye in 1936, shows these physiological processes we feel when there’s something in our world that metaphorically weighs heavy upon us, that overwhelms us, or that surpasses our capabilities of control.

Nerves, stomach pain, worry, a racing feeling, headaches…

The majority of us have experienced these stress-induced symptoms. However, although we know its consequences, the triggers and, most importantly, understanding the reason why we experience these phenomenons escape us. As such, although stress may be a normal physiological response, we experience this reality with a lot of suffering.

Why don’t we admit it?

We live in a society where we not only normalize stress and anxiety disorders but also believe that people who don’t reach this level, simply aren’t working hard enough in their jobs or everyday life. Integrating this belief into our lives has serious consequences for our health.

Let’s take a look at how the body handles the process of adapting to stressful situations.

General adaption syndrome: definition and phases

Let’s imagine that we’ve started a new job. Within a few weeks, we start to see how the workload is excessive, and how the working environment, in addition to being oppressive, dulls our spirits and enthusiasm. Psychological wear is evident.

Now, what we experience during this time reflects the essence of Hans Selye‘s theory. General adaption syndrome describes the process of the human being’s natural response to situations of stress.

This experience can be adaptive and normal when we eventually manage to adjust to these demanding stimulants present in our worlds. However, when these conditions surpass our capacity of control and we’re exposed to them for an excessive time, negative symptoms appear.

Similarly, it’s important to mention that these reactions are universal. Doctor Selye carried out a series of experiments on mice at McGill University in Montreal, immersing them in stressful situations to test what behaviors they demonstrated.

The effects were always the same. Later, he moved from animal models to humans to test that basically, general adaption syndrome develops in three phases.

General adaption syndrome is a process that we naturally go through in highly stressful situations.

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1. Alarmed or shocked phase

Selye’s model continues to be valid by today’s standard. According to studies, like that done by West Virginia University in the United States, have tried to find cracks and weaknesses in this approach, but its fundamental aspects continue to be valid.

Often, and to test its efficiency, specialists apply it in the athletic world, an area that allows us to clearly illustrate these phases. The first of those is when we’re in a highly stressful situation for the first time.

For example, we face an opponent in a game of tennis, football, or karate. We can also take an example of this from starting a new position at work.

Our bodies react in the following way:

  • We experience tachycardia (an accelerated heart rate) and feel alarmed.
  • The most common characteristic is that we feel paralyzed at the beginning, and we don’t know how to react.
  • Facing a threatening stimulus, our suprarenal system starts to release cortisol, the stress hormone.

If the person manages to surpass this first reaction and take control, general adaption syndrome stops here. Now, if that’s not the case, take a look at the next phase.

2. Resistance phase

When the stressor remains in your environment and you still haven’t adapted to it, you reach the resistance phase. At this stage, the activation level now isn’t as elevated, but the physiological annoyances are still present in some way, shape, or form.

Let’s take a deeper look:

  • We define resistance as a sustained incapacity to deal with, accept, or react to something that overwhelms, worries, or alarms us.
  • The anguish persists; it’s clear that our heart rates are no longer higher than normal and we aren’t constantly trapped in that state of high-alert and hypersensitivity, the uncertainty and discomfort continue because we haven’t adapted.
  • Cortisol continues to be released in our bodies and this can cause fatigue, changes to mood, irritability, and problems with concentration.

In cases where we don’t adapt to the concrete situation and its stressors at this stage, we reach a more problematic phase.

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3. General adaption syndrome and the exhaustion stage

Just as doctor M. Carmen Ocaña Méndez explains in their work about general adaptation syndrome, a good part of the population alive today are immersed in the exhaustion stage.

By this, they mean that a lot of us live with a persistent state of stress because we don’t acclimatize to it nor do we manage to face these stressors that we’re burdened by.

  • When we spend months immersed in a persistent state of stress, we use up our physical and physiological resources.
  • The risk of developing certain illnesses rises. The most common characteristic of this phase is we start seeing evidence of hypertension, changes to digestion, insomnia, musculoskeletal pain, headaches, dizziness, among others.
  • On the other hand, we can’t lose sight of the fact that chronic stress can develop into anxiety disorders.
Stress that we don’t manage over time can lead to more severe problems, like anxiety disorders.

Take a look at: How to Improve Your Emotional Health

The importance of managing stress

General adaption syndrome demonstrates the importance of managing the stress sooner rather than later, to avoid reaching the exhaustion stage. Stress that we don’t manage becomes chronic and with it comes to discomfort and potential illnesses.

We must keep this in mind: managing these states isn’t only possible, but necessary. We all have the ability to do so (Lazarus, 1980).

Here are some strategies:

  • Clarify the cause of stress.
  • Come up with solutions to the problem(s). Avoid the challenge(s) becoming bigger and more uncontrollable day by day.
  • Act on your emotions. We should be able to control them and not have them control us.
  • Every day, draw up new measures that help to resolve the situation(s) and favor your wellbeing.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle, practice relaxation, and deep breathing.

Last but not least, we must ask for help when we need it. Support from loved ones and specialized professional intervention will can us avoid reaching such exhausting limits.

  • Bértola, D. (2010). Hans Selye y sus ratas estresadasMedicina Universitaria,  12 (47), 142-143.
  • Camargo, B. S. (2004). Estrés, síndrome general de adaptación o reacción general de alarma. Revista Médico Científica, 17 (2), 78-86.
  • Cunanan, A. J., DeWeese, B. H., Wagle, J. P., Carroll, K. M., Sausaman, R., Hornsby, W. G., … Stone, M. H. (2018, April 1). The General Adaptation Syndrome: A Foundation for the Concept of Periodization. Sports Medicine. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0855-3
  • Ocaña Méndez, M. C. (2008). Síndrome de adaptación general. La naturaleza de los estímulos estresantes. Escuela Abierta 2, 41-50.