General adaptation syndrome is a three-staged response to stress that is considered universal. Dr. Hans Selye, a very well known 20th century Canadian endocrinologist, first described it. He initially studied animal populations to determine how animals reacted when faced with constant stress, and these studies were then extrapolated to humans.
According to Dr. Selye, there are three stages of general adaptation syndrome. The first stage is called alarm, and this is the common “fight or flight” response most people experience when a stressor first occurs. The stress can be emotional or physical, and only the individual may perceive it as a stressor. A person afraid of heights might hit the alarm stage when going up stairs, though this is not thought a dangerous practice, in most cases. Whether danger or pain is real or imagined, people in the alarm stage will have an increase in the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) and some increase in cortisol.
Some stress is situational and resolves right away, in which case, people will progress out of stage one of general adaptation syndrome to a non-stressed state. However, stress can continue, and when it keeps up, the body goes into the second stage, which is resistance. This is actually the “adaptation” part of the syndrome. People try to adapt to a chronic source of stress and the body may physically attempt to change in order to cope with additional stress.
For example, a person who is anorexic gradually begins to lose interest in food (hunger). The body may also adapt by trying to get as much nutritional benefit from food as possible and by slowing down the digestive system. Since the person is a in a constant state of starvation, this can only last so long. But the body’s ability to “resist” the continued stressor of starvation, explains why anorexics can spend years exhibiting this unhealthy behavior without dying.
However, ultimately, resistance to stressors ends and physical exhaustion occurs. This third stage of general adaptation syndrome is caused exhaustion. When stress is constant and extremely serious it may lead to death. The person who is a workaholic in a high stress job might have a body flooded with the hormone cortisol, which may cause early development of heart disease, and possible risk of heart attack at a very early age. There are obviously many attempts to cope with stressors or treat illness that arise from stress before an exhaustion stage causes death. Yet people can mentally or physically “break down” when stressors are huge and have lasted for a long period of time.
Not all stress according to Selye, is perceived the same by humans. He invented the terms eustress and distress to differentiate between stress that helped or harmed. Eustress might make people more functional in stage two, and be received positively or it wouldn’t have an alarming affect on physicality because a person had good coping resources. Distress, on the other hand, can seriously affect behavior and ultimately reduces functionality, instead of improving it. More specifically, people in eustress have greater ability to remain in the resistance stage, while those in distress may plummet quickly to the exhaustion stage.
General adaptation syndrome suggests the very real physical results of exposure to stress, especially long term types. Fortunately people have many ways, and can learn many new methods for coping with stress. Interventions may exist to help people in all kinds of stressful situations, and given physical response to long-term stressors, it a good idea to find help when either physical or emotional stress exists for lengthy periods.