Hans Selye quotes “Man should not try to avoid stress any more than he would shun food, love or exercise.”
A theory that illustrates the physiological changes the body undergoes when under stress is termed as general adaptation syndrome.
What is general adaptation syndrome?
In an ongoing process with lab rats at McGill University in Montreal, Hans Selye, a medical doctor and researcher first described GAS. After being exposed to stressful events, Hans examined a series of physiological changes in the rats. The explained theory behind GAS was the body’s way of adjusting to a perceived threat to better equip it to survive.
Facilitating the body to take effort rapidly, this intends to keep us out of harm’s way. A body can encounter this response even if there is no immediate physical threat. The stress experienced is purely cognitive. For example, this can occur when someone is running late for a job and is feeling anxious about trying to get there.
The physical alterations that happen during the response can result in damage within the body if the perception of anxiety prevails.
Few examples of such bodily changes are:
- Heart rate increases
- Pupils dilate
- Blood sugar levels rise
- Respiration rate increases
- Muscles tense up
- Perspiration increases
Systems including the muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive system, all are affected by body stress.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS stages):
Hans classified GAS as a three-stage process namely Alarm reaction stage, Resistance stage and Exhaustion stage. Here are the three GAS stages:
1. Alarm Reaction Stage
At the alarm reaction stage, a stress signal is sent to a part of the brain called hypothalamus releasing hormones called glucocorticoids. The stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline are released which is triggered by glucocorticoids.
Adrenaline gives a person a boost of energy, further results in increased heart rate and blood pressure. Furthermore, blood sugar levels go up.
The sympathetic branch named Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) governs these physiological changes that a body undergoes. Often termed as the fight-or-flight response, this stage prepares an individual to react to the stressor.
2. Resistance stage
The physiological changes occurred during the alarm reaction stage are counteracted in the resistance stage. A part of the ANS called parasympathetic governs the resistance stage.
In order to return the body to normal, the parasympathetic branch of ANS reduces the amount of cortisol produced. In response, heart rate and blood pressure begin to come to normal.
In case the stressor pertains, the body stays alert and stress hormones produce continually. A person striving to concentrate and becoming irritable is the result of this physical response.
However, if a stressful situation ceases to exist during the resistance stage, the body will return to normal.
3. Exhaustion stage
The final stage of GAS, known as the exhaustion stage is experienced by the body after an extended period of stress. After continuously attempting but ceasing to regain from the initial alarm reaction stage, the body depletes its energy reserves.
After reaching this phase, the individual’s body is no longer competent to fight stress. They may experience:
It is suggested to manage stress levels at this stage itself. Failing to do so might result in exposing the individual to stress-health related issues.
When does general adaptation syndrome occur?
The occurrence of GAS can take place due to stressful events like a job loss, a repeated exam failure, medical conditions, financial issues, family breakdown, trauma etc.
The first stage of GAS gives individuals a burst of energy and concentration helping them in problem-solving. In this jet age, without a burst of energy, it is unlikely to be able to solve a stressful event.
A review from 2008 explained that long term stress can give birth to negative consequences on an individual physically as well as on their immune system. The paper noted that chronic stress could:
- Increase the risk of viral infection
- Increase the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Lead to stomach ulcers
- Lead to depression
The 2008 review further explained that chronic stress is furthermore correlated to a heightened risk of heart disease.
How to manage general adaptation syndrome?
Understanding what triggers stress is the very first step towards managing general adaptation syndrome. Different people have different reasons to stress about. It is extremely necessary to identify what situation, event, cause or person are particularly stressful to them.
Even if you have to make certain lifestyle modifications in order to eliminate those stress triggering elements it is suggested to do so. Let’s say, for instance, there is a lot of peer pressure on you in your work atmosphere which triggers stress. Quitting the job or making huge amendments in the atmosphere is alright to cope with the situation.
Whereas it is always not possible to avoid or eliminate those components. In that case, it is crucial to reduce the impact it has on body and mind.
Physical activity as a way of reducing stress was suggested by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Working out releases endorphins, improving sleep and sense of well-being. Brisk walking or running is easy to do exercises.
Some others that may prove helpful are:
- Mindfulness and meditation
- Deep breathing
- Relaxing baths
- Talk to a friend
Looking out for the signs and symptoms of stress can prove beneficial towards taking appropriate steps to manage your anxiety and lower your risk of complications.
Adopting techniques like yoga, meditation, exercises can prove very helpful for you if you go through general adaptation syndrome. Try to keep yourself engaged in those things that make you happy. Happiness is the best stress buster. There is no such trauma from which you cannot cope and rise. Even if you go through GAS follow the simple methods told above and you will notice changes. In case these procedures don’t work for you feel free to visit a therapist. Therapies can be very useful even in the ugliest situations.
“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” Hans Selye