General Adaptation Syndrome
General adaptation syndrome describes the body's short-term and long-term reaction to stress.
Originally described by Hans De Solye in the 1920s, the general adaptation syndrome describes a three stage
The first stage of the general adaptation stage, the alarm reaction, is the immediate reaction to a stressor. In the initial phase of stress, humans exhibit a "fight or flight" response, which causes one to be ready for physical activity. However, this initial response can also decrease the effectiveness of the immune system, making persons more susceptible to illness during this phase.
Stage 2 might also be named the stage of adaptation, instead of the stage of resistance. During this phase, if the stress continues, the body adapts to the stressors it is exposed to. Changes at many levels take place in order to reduce the effect of the stressor. For example, if the stressor is starvation (possibly due to anorexia), the person might experienced a reduced desire for physical activity to conserve energy, and the absorption of nutrients from food might be maximized.
At this stage, the stress has continued for some time. The body's resistance to the stress may gradually be reduced, or may collapse quickly. Generally, this means the immune system, and the body's ability to resist disease, may be almost totally eliminated. Patients who experience long-term stress may succumb to heart attacks or severe infection due to their reduced immunity. For example, a person with a stressful job may experience long-term stress that might lead to high blood pressure and an eventual heart attack.
Stress, a useful reaction?
Although stress can lead to disease, a researcher named Huethner has suggested that long-term stress may cause humans to better adapt to their environment. He argues that severe, long-term stress can cause persons to reject long-held assumptions or behaviors, and that stress can actually help the brain make physical changes that reflect these mental or emotional changes. In short, stress might allow persons to change the way they think and act for the better.
Causes and symptoms
Stress is the cause of general adaptation syndrome and it can manifest as fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty sleeping. Persons may also experience other symptoms that are signs of stress. Persons experiencing unusual symptoms, such as hair loss, without another medical explanation might consider stress as the cause.
Diagnosis is difficult. Some physiological changes, such as increased cortisol levels, are characteristic of long-term stress.
Treatment should involve stress reduction. Stress may be thought of as occurring in two steps. The first step is the occurrence of the external stressor, the second is the reaction to the external stressor. Stress reduction strategies generally fall into three categories: avoiding stressors, changing the reaction to the stressor(s), or relieving stress after the reaction to the stressor(s). Many strategies for stress reduction, such as exercising, listening to music, aromatherapy, and massage relieve stress after it occurs. Many psychotherapeutic approaches attempt to reduce the response of the patient to stressors. Persons wishing to reduce stress should consult a medical professional with whom they feel comfortable to discuss which option, or combination of options, they can use to reduce stress.
Huethner, G. "The central adaptation syndrome: Psychosocial stress as a trigger for adaptive modifications of brain structure and brain function." Progress in Neurobiology 48 (1996): 569-612.
"Stress management, General adaptation syndrome, GAS." <http://www.holisticonline.com/stress/stress_GAS.htm>.
Michael Zuck, PhD
Stressor—Any external stimuli that causes stress, ranging from starvation to test-taking.