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What is General Adaptation Syndrome?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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 called 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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Handycell — On Jan 21, 2014
I’m a natural worrier, so I’m prone to stress and I get anxious very easily. I find myself physical and mentally exhausted after dealing with major stressors and I almost feel like I need a full day to recoup and recharge. I often get sick, which I think is related to my constant need to worry. I worry about the toll it will take on my physical health in the future.

I had a friend tell me that cognitive-behavioral therapy might be helpful for me, as it’s helped her stay calm during stressful times in her life. I’m wondering if anyone else out there has gone through cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety, and if so, did it help? I’m also considering meditation, as I’ve heard good things about that as well, but I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to meditation so it’s very easy for me to just not do it.

Are there any good sites out there that are helpful for people who want to meditate but are new to the process?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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