General Adaptation Syndrome

What is General Adaptation Syndrome?

General Adaptation Syndrome is the stages of stress that the body experiences. Most people are unaware of the occurrences, but every person goes through a process when dealing with both everyday stressors and major bouts of stress in their lives.

People who educate themselves on GAS are able to identify the effects stress is having on their bodies and can more effectively control the outcome. If General Adaptation Syndrome is not properly addressed and a prolonged period of stress occurs, the person will begin to have physical repercussions that can lead to major physiological complications.

Overview of General Adaptation Syndrome

Everyone deals with stress at some point or another. Many, however, do not realize the body goes through a specific process when dealing with stress. Each person is different, but there are general characteristics they can look for once they become more educated in regards to their body’s processes when exposed to stress and stressors.

The General Adaptation Syndrome came to light and was first defined by Hans Seley.

He was able to identify the results of initial and prolonged stress on the human body. Stress was not well understood until he began his research within the last 100 years. He was interested in studying hormones, but during his research, he noticed that people were exhibiting similar processes when exposed to stress. These studies took place in Montreal, Canada, at Mcgill University and he later outlined his findings in 1926 through a published work entitled “Nature”. His work detailed the findings that modern science uncovered relating to the effects of stress on the human body.

Today, we know about stress management and the serious side effects that people face when they are not effectively managing their stress. Stress contributes to a variety of health and psychological issues that pose a serious threat to the well-being of the person experiencing prolonged General Adaptation Syndrome.

Symptoms of General Adaptation Syndrome

General Adaptation Syndrome consists of a three-step process. The three stages are alarm, resistance, and finally exhaustion.

Alarm – First stage of GAS

The first stage, alarm, is when the body initiates its fight or flight reflexes. The fight or flight response is the way the body prepares to deal with anything that has caught it off guard or that delivers a sudden unexpected turn of events. The body produces chemicals that aid in either being able to suddenly remove yourself from the situation by fleeing, or prepares your body to defend itself by fighting whatever seems to pose a threat at the time.

Some of the chemicals your body produces are adrenaline and cortisol. Both of these hormones give you the ability to defend yourself from perceived threats. During the alarm stage, the hormone cortisol is produced when the sympathetic branch of the ANS is initiated. The hypothalamus receives a signal that activates a quick burst of energy to the body. In turn, the pituitary gland releases hormones called glucocorticoids, which release from the adrenal cortex.

In early research, information about this stage of stress showed an effect on the lymph, thymus, and liver of rats exposed to triggers that initiated the alarm stage over a prolonged period of time. Overall body fat decreased due to exposure, as well as a marked shrinkage of the organs. Research also discovered that the alarm stage of stress also lowered the body temperature of the rats. The hormones in your body may not return to normal levels right away. If a person is in a prolonged state of stress, they will continue to produce stress hormones, such as cortisol, and will see elevated blood pressure over an extended period of time. This can be dangerous to a person’s physical and mental well-being.

If the person doesn’t have extended periods of stress, the body will return to normal. Proper stress-management techniques help prevent prolonged exposure to the body’s ways of coping with stress, which helps prevent other serious conditions that can become life threatening if not treated.

Resistance – Second stage of GAS

The resistance stage comes after the body deals with the threat and begins to recover. You are still in a heightened state of awareness, but you will begin to relax somewhat, and your hormone levels begin to decrease as well as your blood pressure. In this stage, your body can begin to cope with stress but is not in its normal state. For some individuals, they may stay in this state when exposed to stress over an extended period of time. In this stage, your body will function in ways that you are not aware of and will begin to change over the course of time.

Even if you think you are doing a good job managing the stress in your life, you are still going to have some effects whether you are aware of them or not. Your hormone levels do not return to normal, and the body continues to produce cortisol and your blood pressure remains elevated and blood glucose levels increase. Some of the signs that you are in the resistance stage include poor concentration, irritability, and frustration.

In the resistance stage, the parasympathetic branch becomes stimulated to minimize the effects of the alarm stage of General Adaptation Syndrome. It is the body’s attempt to return to the normal state of operation called homeostasis. This generally occurs within a 48-hour period. If you remain in the resistance stage for an extended period of time, it can trigger the exhaustion stage.

Exhaustion – Third stage of GAS

Once the body has been in the resistance stage for an extended length of time, you begin to experience the effects of the exhaustion stage, which can cause a whole range of unpleasant issues for the body. The exhaustion stage occurs when the body no longer has the ability or the energy to cope with the constant stress. It begins to tire and lose the ability to effectively function. Once this begins to happen a variety of dangerous problems begin to take shape, which can have serious consequences for the person suffering the stress.

One of the more dangerous side effects of the exhaustion stage includes weakness in the immune system. People in this stage tend to become ill more frequently and for longer periods of time. Some of the symptoms that individuals in the exhaustion stage experience include burnout, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and inability to cope with additional stress. Whether the person experiences long-term stress or short-term stress, the body will react to attempt to handle the situation to protect the individual.

People should educate themselves on the stages of stress, as well as helpful coping mechanisms to avoid prolonged elevated hormone levels and high blood pressure, which can lead to serious issues such as heart attack and stroke.

General Adaptation Syndrome Causes

General Adaptation Syndrome occurs when the body prepares to deal with a variety of stress initially and then begins to cope with it in a much more long-term way. The onset of stress triggers responses that help you protect yourself. Afterward, the body enters a stage that allows you to remain in a state of heightened awareness; however, you begin to emerge from your initial fight or flight state and into a recovery state marked by a decrease in hormones.

The causes of General Adaptation Syndrome vary greatly but generally come from stressful events such as financial problems, trauma, loss of a job, family issues, etc.

Any major stressful event that occurs in a person’s life is able to cause General Adaptation Syndrom. When any type of major stress occurs the body immediately begins to react in an attempt to protect itself. There are a series of physiological responses that occur in individuals that experience stress. The onset of the stress initializes a chain reaction within the body that can last for an extended period of time, which can depend on the nature of the stress and the way in which the person handles the stress.

Treatment of General Adaptation Syndrome

The treatment for General Adaptation Syndrome can vary greatly depending on the individual’s circumstances. People who experience stress and deal with it in a healthy manner and do not experience the recovery state for an extended period of time, do not normally suffer any type of repercussions and return to normal in a short amount of time.

If the body reaches the exhaustion stage, a person begins to experience the symptoms we generally associate with extreme stress. When a person reaches this stage, they require therapy, medication, and breathing exercises to help them return to a normal state that does not have serious consequences on the body.

If the prolonged stress is severe, other treatments may be required to get the body’s processes back to a normal state.

Medication may become necessary to treat high blood pressure and even the resulting conditions that high blood pressure can lead to. Once the effects of the stress are controlled, the patient can begin therapy and can learn techniques to manage stress. Many have had good results when placed on an antidepressant or mood-altering drugs designed to get them through stressful situations.

General Adaptation Syndrome Prevention

Although preventing all stress is impossible, taking steps to minimize a person’s exposure and frequency of stress is possible. Each individual can analyze their day-to-day stresses and take steps to eliminate unnecessary stressful situations and learn proper coping mechanisms to deal with the presence of a stressor to minimize the effects on their body.

One of the most effective ways to deal with stress is to learn coping techniques designed to lower stress when it presents itself.

Knowing effective techniques helps the body to return to homeostasis more quickly. A popular method to deal with stress today is meditation and yoga. If these methods are not something you are interested in learning, there are breathing techniques and psychological exercises a professional therapist or psychologist can show their patients.

In some cases where the patient is experiencing severe anxiety or other issues that compound the effects of General Adaptation Syndrome, medication may be administered. A blend of learned relaxation techniques and learned coping skills are great techniques to help reduce the impact of prolonged stress on the body and gives people tools to use when they feel overwhelmed or are having trouble dealing with additional stress or situations.

Some medications are designed for long-term use to manage the chemicals in the brain and body, while others are meant to treat the patient experiencing stress in the immediate sense. Anti-anxiety medication and tranquilizers may help and warrant a prescription to help people get through a stressful situation with minimal effects on the body, which shortens the span of stress as well as the long-term physiological effects.

General Adaptation Syndrome is not necessarily a negative physiological reaction, but rather is an important process which allows the body to respond to and address stress in an effective way.

Usually when people are exposed to stress they go through General Adaptation Syndrome and then return to normal promptly.

However, in some cases, the process becomes extended and can cause issues in the person’s everyday life which require treatment from a mental health professional. There are effective treatments available which allow the person to function in more of a normal capacity.

The outlook for individuals suffering from General Adaptation Syndrome is positive if they concentrate on their therapy and wish to receive the maximum benefit from their treatment and return to normal.

Last Reviewed:
September 22, 2017
Last Updated:
December 26, 2017
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