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By Andrea M. Darcy
Not sure if you are stressed or managing? The body doesn’t lie, goes the saying, and when it comes to stress ‘general adaptation syndrome’ is a tell all.
What is general adaptation syndrome?
General adaptation syndrome, or ‘GAS’, is a fancy way of describing the biological chain of reactions that stress triggers in your body. The term is attributed to endocrinologist Hans Selye. Way back in the 1930s he noticed the stress the poor rats in his laboratory were going through had similarities with those his patients when a medical student did. It had a predictable physical pattern.
And your body will experience this pattern of physical symptoms even if it’s not a bad stress you are going through. So losing your job could set it all off, but so something like the positive stress of getting married to the love of your life.
Why should I care about GAS?
It’s a useful way to tell if you are more stressed than you realise. If you are trying to convince yourself you are ‘fine’, and things are ‘under control’, general adaptation syndrome can help you realise if that is not true. You can then take steps to lower your stress, such as by delegating things, or saying no to people. Or realise it’s time to reach out get some support.
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Knowing the symptoms of general adaptation syndrome can also help lower our stress. We won’t mistake them for some kind of illness, and won’t ‘stress about our stress’.
Finally, GAS can show us if our attempts to lower our stress have worked, as we will find ourselves not entering the final stage of the process.
The three stages of general adaptation syndrome
The three identified stages of general adaptation syndrome are alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
Also called the ‘reaction’ phase. This is down to our primal brain, which unfortunately has not kept up with the times. It can react to a colleague being snarky with us much the same effect as if a bear was attacking us in the woods. It ‘sounds the alarm’ with the infamous ‘fight or flight’ response, now called ‘fight flight or freeze’ as it turns some of us go for the deer in the headlights response.
And fight or flight leaves our ‘sympathetic nervous system’ being triggered. This system manages how our stomach, heart, muscles, and bladder/intestines get on. (So if you ever wondered why stress makes you need the loo, there’s your answer.)
Alarm stage symptoms are short. A few seconds, sometimes longer. They are the precursors to the more well-known stress symptoms, that moment where you feel like you’ve been given a shot of something or drank ten coffees. Symptoms include:
- suddenly feeling hot or flushed
- your heart starting to beat faster
- feeling like your senses are sharpened, or like all is ‘3-D’
- eye dilation
- breathing faster and less deeply.
Resistance (or the ‘adaptation’ phase) brings the bigger stress symptoms most of us recognise. This is augmented by the body now releasing cortisol. So we are looking at things like:
Note that this adaptation phase can go on for days, weeks, months…in some cases, years. Such as in the case of complex trauma and c-PTSD, even years.
This ‘stage three’ has an alternate, which is ‘recovery’. This happens when we deal well with the resistance stage and lower our stress.
Otherwise the stage three of ‘exhaustion’ means we can cycle back through the symptoms of the alarm phase (sweating, racing heart, etc). And also end up with symptoms like:
- fatigue that no amount of coffee can stop
- lowered tolerance for stress
- burnout – that “I’m done” feeling.
At this point, the body’s immune system is depleted. We can develop physical illness like diabetes and cardiovascular issues. And we can also develop mental illness.
General adaptation syndrome and mental health
When we allow stress to cycle through to the exhaustion phase, we put ourselves in line for mental health issues like:
How can I stop the stages of stress?
Once our fight, flight, or freeze mode has triggered, there are self help tools that can really help our mind and body calm down. Such as:
Of course the obvious choice for dealing with stress and the GAS response is to step away from the stressor. Say no, walk away, ask someone else to do all or part of the responsibility you are struggling with.
But part of high-end stress can be cognitive distortions, thinking that isn’t true. We can believe we are trapped, that we ‘have’ to do something. Or that if we don’t we are some sort of failure, and will ‘never again get this sort of opportunity’.
What types of therapy can help?
Cognitive behavioural therapy can be a great help here. It is focused on helping you with recognising, questioning, and changing such distorted thinking, so that it stops leading to negative choices and mood states.
Losing the plot because of too much stress? We connect you with some of London’s most highly experienced and rated talk therapists in three central locations. Otherwise, use our booking sister site to find UK-wide registered therapists.
Still have a question about general adaptation syndrome? Post below. Note that all comments are moderated and that we cannot offer free counselling over comments.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert with training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and works as a consultant helping people plan their perfect therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy