General adaptation syndrome (GAS) is a three-stage response to stress. Identifying triggers and managing stress can help you control GAS and prevent serious health conditions.
Work demands. In-laws. Facebook. We all have our own definition of stress, with our own unique triggers.
But what we all share is a similar reaction to stress, according to the theory of general adaptation syndrome, or GAS.
GAS is a three-stage process of physiological changes our bodies go through when we’re faced with a stressor. If the stressor passes, the body recovers and returns to a balanced state. But if stress continues, it can put your health at serious risk and affect your overall well-being.
Identifying your stress triggers is the first step in managing GAS. And while you can’t avoid or eliminate all of your triggers, you can learn to cope with some tried-and-true stress management techniques.
Hungarian scientist and researcher Hans Seyle defined general adaptation syndrome (GAS) as the body’s typical response to stress.
After conducting experiments on rats, Seyle discovered they all had a similar response to a variety of stressors. In a 1946 article in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology, he outlined his theory that GAS is the body’s way of reacting to a perceived threat as a way to survive.
Seyle concluded that stress typically manifests as a series of physiological changes that affect the whole body. These changes occur in three stages:
- alarm reaction stage
- resistance stage
- exhaustion stage
Seyle identified three distinct stages of GAS that occur when you encounter a stressor or stressful event.
1. Alarm reaction stage
The alarm reaction stage is the initial stage that happens shortly after exposure to a stressor.
During this stage, your body goes into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode in an effort to confront or flee the threat. Any stressor, whether real or imagined, alerts the brain to stimulate the autonomic nervous system.
This causes the body to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which starts a series of changes in your body:
- Your heart rate and breathing speed up.
- Your muscles tense.
- Your hearing sharpens.
- Your peripheral vision increases.
- Your body temperature lowers.
- Your perception of pain temporarily decreases.
2. Resistance stage
In the second stage of GAS, as your body adapts to the threat, it begins to counteract, or resist, the physiological changes. The length of resistance depends on the intensity of the stressor and your body’s stored energy reserves.
If the stressful event continues, the hormonal changes from the alarm stage continue to keep you in a state of alert. As a result, you may experience increased glucose levels and higher blood pressure.
If the stressful event passes, your stress hormones begin to decrease. Your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal as your body shifts to a state of repair.
3. Exhaustion stage
The third and final stage of GAS is the exhaustion stage. In this stage, your body’s resources are depleted after attempting to repair itself during the resistance stage.
If the original threat has passed, your body will continue to recover. But if stress continues, the body no longer has the energy to fight it, which may lead to:
Causes of GAS can be anything that leads to acute or chronic stress. This includes life events, as well as psychological stress. Some examples include:
- Work issues: work conflicts or pressure, unemployment, retirement
- Family concerns: relationship difficulties, divorce, caregiving responsibilities
- Financial difficulties: loss of a job, unexpected bills, inability to keep up with inflation
- Health problems: illness, injury, death of a loved one
- Significant life events: wedding, having a baby, buying a home
If stress is affecting your life, you can help manage GAS by understanding what triggers stress for you. Then you can determine what stress-management strategies work best and when you may need to employ them.
For example, if you’re experiencing stress due to a specific life event, such as a wedding, some time management strategies may be useful to help you gain a sense of control.
If you have ongoing stress from something like managing a chronic condition, you may find relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or visualization, can provide relief.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends physical activity to help reduce stress. This could be anything from brisk walking or running to yoga or tai chi. Exercise helps release endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals that promote calm and a sense of well-being.
Other stress-management strategies that may help:
GAS is a three-stage response to stress that includes alarm reaction, resistance, and exhaustion.
After your body goes through a series of physiological changes in the alarm reaction stage, it’s important for it to recover during the resistance stage. Without recovery, it can lead to exhaustion and put you at risk for serious health problems.
Stress is a part of life, and we can’t avoid or eliminate all of our triggers. But we can learn to manage stress with things like regular physical activity and relaxation techniques.
If you’re finding it hard to cope with stress on your own, getting support from friends, family, or a professional counselor can also be helpful.