The Different Stages of Stress

Mikaela Frame
The Different Stages of Stress

Stress. You can feel it creeping in as your heart begins to race and your mind takes over. It can be debilitating and uncontrollable and create many issues for you as you daily. Whatever it is that causes you stress, your body and emotions will react to it.

Stress doesn’t just negatively affect your mind. Experiencing stress can take an extreme physical toll on your body. You are put through different stages of pressure when you experience stress. For some, understanding what stages they are going through can help to understand their experience. Sometimes, by breaking down what’s going on in your mind and body, you can help to bring a rational viewpoint to the situation.

There is a name for the stages of stress known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Understanding general adaptation syndrome and the different effects it has on you is important for understanding your stress.

What Is General Adaptation Syndrome?

General adaptation syndrome (GAS) is the body’s physiological reaction to stress, both long-term and short-term. It describes the physical and mental changes that you go through when experiencing stress and offers a breakdown of what’s happening behind the scenes.

General adaptation syndrome was originally brought to the world’s attention by Hans Selye, a researcher, and doctor from Vienna, in the 1920s. He was conducting experiments on rats when he noticed a physiological change occurring when put in stressful situations.

This reaction was quite typical of a response to the rats, which led to him correlating human reactions to stress. GAS is something we probably all have experienced, and if you feel more stressed out than you think you should, learning about the stages can help you figure out coping strategies.

Stages of GAS

When you begin to break down each of the stages that Selye identified--alarm reaction, resistance, and exhaustion--you can see where there might be room to work on coping mechanisms to avoid experiencing overwhelming stress.

Understanding the triggers can help to lessen the effects of stress on your health. Each stage of stress brings along different effects on both your mind and body. The three stages of general adaptation syndrome are alarm reaction, resistance, and exhaustion.

Alarm Reaction

This is the first stage that you feel when going through general adaptation syndrome. When you enter the alarm reaction stage, a distress signal is sent to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus releases both cortisol and adrenaline, which subconsciously signals your body to prepare to defend itself or to run away.

You may feel your heart rate increase, and you might begin to sweat, but at the same time, you will receive a boost of energy from the adrenaline, which is what is most useful for you. This energy boost allows you to make split-second decisions that can protect you from what you are reacting to!


Once you’ve gone through the alarm reaction stage, the body tries to begin to repair and get back to normal functioning levels. It tries to lower your heart rate and blood pressure by releasing less cortisol into the body.

Regardless of whether you are trying to get back to normal, your body will stay on high alert as it monitors stress. If the stressor is fully removed and no longer a threat, your body will work until everything is back to normal. If the stressor does not go away, your body will continue fighting to stay safe.

The resistance stage focuses on counteracting the physiological changes made during the alarm reaction stage. If your body is still under stress, it will only begin to learn to adapt to higher levels of stress.

If this continues, you will experience symptoms of irritability, lack of concentration, and frustration. You may believe you are managing your stress well, but its effects on you can cause changes to occur in your body that negatively impact your health.


This exhaustion stage of GAS is characterized by the inability to recover from the alarm reaction stage. At this point, your body shuts down. You are tired from using up all of your energy to try to bring your body to normal functioning levels. If you continue to struggle with stress, it can cause exhaustion to your physical, mental, and emotional health.

It’s important for you to let your body recover, and if you don’t, you can really hurt yourself.

You can tell that your body is giving up fighting and that you are experiencing exhaustion from stress are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue and burnout
  • Decreased stress tolerance

Experiencing exhaustion can lead to stress-related health issues, so it’s important to learn to cope with your stress.

Why It Happens

Everyone experiences stress due to different circumstances throughout life. Not everyone has the same fears and worries. For each person, the process will be brought on for different reasons. Some examples of certain stressors that can cause general adaptation syndrome to occur are:

  • Losing your job
  • Ending a relationship
  • Financial issues
  • Family-related issues
  • Medical problems

While the symptoms that you feel when under distress are not pleasurable and can be physically and emotionally tormenting, you can receive boosts of energy through shots of adrenaline.

This can help to problem solve, as you will get a boost of energy and focus to try to reduce your stress. Unfortunately, though, stress symptoms can make it harder to process things, and the physical symptoms can be debilitating.

For short-term stressors, like losing your keys for a bit or realizing you forgot a paper you needed to turn in, your body is actually strengthened when the adrenaline kicks in, and it learns to adapt easier to stress.

If you experience stress for a prolonged period of time, though, this is not necessarily the case. Long-term stress can negatively impact you, as it weakens the immune system. Prolonged stress raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, stomach ulcers, digestion problems.

Managing GAS

First things first, you need to understand what triggers your stress. Not everyone experiences feelings of stress from the same factors. Because everyone is different, there is no one way to manage it.

Finding out what triggers you have can be helpful in finding specific interventions to help manage your symptoms. Once you have understood your triggers, you can make changes in your life to limit and reduce them.

If you can’t find an easy way to avoid a specific stressor, you need to learn ways to cope with them. If you can reduce the negative impact it will have on you; you can begin to feel more confident functioning out in the world.

Some recommendations to learn how to manage your stress include:

  • Exercise. You don’t have to be an avid runner or a self-proclaimed gym rat to get physical activity into your daily schedule. Making sure you are stretching for 20 minutes each morning or getting in a quick yoga workout can be very helpful in relieving stress.
  • Practice mindfulness. Learning how to meditate when under stress or figuring out breathing techniques that lower your heart rate are great in finding ways to manage general adaptation syndrome.
  • Writing. Sometimes having a journal where you can talk to yourself and write down your thoughts is very helpful in reducing stress.
  • Self-care. All of the above is related to self-care. Find time to do things that you want to do and find things that can help you relax. Take a bubble bath or a hot shower. Paint your nails or watch your favorite movie. Call up a friend and have a chat or make some plans! By treating yourself kindly, you are helping your body to regulate itself.

De-Stress With Vessel Health

Stress has a negative impact on both your physical and mental health. General adaptation syndrome (GAS) occurs in three different stages as a reaction to stress, and it’s your body’s way of trying to regulate your hormone levels.

You can learn more about your own body’s hormone levels, including cortisol, by using Vessel Health’s at-home Wellness Test Card. All you have to do to get your results instantly is scan the card after you have used the bathroom.

This card will tell you all about what is going on in your body. If your stress levels are too high, we will recommend ways to improve your daily life so that your stress levels may be reduced.

Most people deal with stress, but it can be hard to learn how to cope with it on your own. You don’t have to worry about this with Vessel Health. We are here to help you manage your stress and achieve a happier life!