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General Adaptation Syndrome: Definition, Phases & Changes

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  • 0:01 General Adaptation Syndrome
  • 0:45 The Alarm Phase
  • 2:36 The Resistance Phase
  • 4:14 The Exhaustion Phase
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
The general adaptation syndrome is a predictable series of phases related to stress. This lesson will explore some of the physiological and psychological changes associated with each phase.

General Adaptation Syndrome

Being called predictable is anything but a compliment. If I could predict your every move when playing a game like chess, then not only would you lose every time, but I would get bored really quickly.

Yet a person's, almost any person's, response to a stressor is quite remarkably similar and predictable. So much so that Hans Selye, an endocrinologist, coined a term known as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), to describe a physiological response to a stressor that occurs in a specific sequence. The three phases of stress, and how your body changes with each phase, include the:

  1. Alarm phase
  2. Resistance phase
  3. Exhaustion phase

The Alarm Phase

When a person is first confronted with a stressor, something that brings about stress, they enter the first phase of the GAS. This first phase is known as the Alarm Phase.

During this immediate and involuntary phase, a hormone called epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is released among plenty of other biochemical messengers.

These biochemicals cause lots of changes, including:

  • An increase of blood sugar, a.k.a. blood glucose. You know that drinking tons of sugar-laced soft drinks give you an energy rush. Your body tries to mimic this naturally by quickly releasing lots of sugar into the bloodstream from its energy stores. This energy supply is necessary during times of stress so you stay mentally alert and are ready to move, run, or fight at a moment's notice.
  • An increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate so you get lots of oxygen and blood delivered to your important organs and muscles - muscles like skeletal muscles, the muscles that help you run, like your quads, and fight, like your triceps.
  • A concurrent decrease in blood flow to the skin and digestive organs because they're irrelevant in a fight or flight response, such as that found during the alarm stage. The last thing your body wants to do when under duress is give precious resources, like blood that's filled with oxygen and sugar, to organs that will not help you immediately fight off a stressor or flee from it. What are you going to do, eat a picnic and digest some food while a bear is charging at you? I don't think so! And neither does your body.

Psychologically speaking, a person may also experience fear, anger, anxiety, panic, and restlessness during the alarm phase.

Resistance Phase

The alarm phase is many times enough to help us overcome something that stressed us out in the first place. But if the stressor goes on for several hours or more, we enter the Resistance Phase, the second phase of the GAS.

Staying in the high-strung alarm phase for too long is not conducive to the proper and optimal health and function of our body. Therefore, people in the resistance stage try to calm themselves down, deny the problem, shut down their emotions, and isolate themselves - all of this, in order to re-establish a sense of normality.

A person's physiological self also undergoes some important modifications at this time. During the resistance phase:

  • Glucocorticoids, which are steroid hormones, as well as other biochemicals, begin to play an important role. They cause things like the breakdown of fat so that this fat can be used as a source of energy during long periods of stress.
  • These biochemicals also elevate and stabilize the levels of blood sugar, particularly in order to power the nervous system.

As long as fat stores remain in enough quantity, the resistance phase can continue for weeks or even months and helps explain why people can survive a huge stressor, like starvation, for quite some time.

Of course, the preponderance of glucocorticoids doesn't come without a cost. Too many of these stress hormones over a long period of time delays wound healing and make a person more likely to get sick.

The Exhaustion Phase

So, whether it's because a person becomes really ill, starves, or continues to endure serious emotional trauma, the resistance phase will inevitably have to come to an end, and the Exhaustion Phase, the third phase of the GAS, will set in.

Entering such a stage usually means the person was unable to recover from the stressor during the resistance phase and that the stress has been going on for a long time - for so long, in fact, that the experience has depleted the person of energy, psychological resources, and biochemicals that were used to help them out before.

The exhaustion phase can lead to serious illness and death. To help you remember the sequence of stages here, just realize that most things that cause us distress SCARE us one way or another. Stress Causes Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion, in that order!

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