General adaptation syndrome: this is how we react to stress

The general adjustment syndrome comes to explain how our body reacts to a stressful situation. This theory, enunciated by the physiologist Hans Selye in 1936, shows us all those physiological processes that we feel when there is something in our environment that overwhelms us, that surpasses us and that exceeds our control capacities.

Nervousness, stomach pain, worry, feeling of racing, headaches… Most of us have experienced the symptoms of stress. However, although we know its consequences, the triggers escape us and, above all, understand why these phenomena happen to us. Thus, although stress is a normal physiological response, we live this reality with great suffering.

Let's admit it we live in a society where not only conditions such as stress and anxiety disorders are normalizedRather, the person who does not reach this level of activation is not trying hard enough at work or in everyday life. Taking on and integrating these approaches has serious consequences for health. Let us therefore analyze how this process of adaptation to stressful situations is orchestrated.

General adaptation syndrome: definition and phases

Let's imagine, for example, that we start a new job. After weeks, we begin to perceive how the workload is excessive and how the work environment, in addition to being oppressive, dampens our spirits and desire. The psychological wear is evident.

Now, what we experience throughout that time perfectly integrates the essence of the theory enunciated by Hans Selye. The general adjustment syndrome describes the process of this natural human response to stressful situations.

This experience can be adaptive and normal when, finally, we manage to adjust to those demanding stimuli in our environment. However, when these conditions exceed our ability to control and are maintained over time, negative effects appear.

Likewise, something important to note: these reactions are universal. Dr. Selye conducted a series of experiments on mice at McGill University in Montreal, subjecting them to stressful situations to see what behaviors they displayed.

The effects were always the same. Later, he went from animal models to humans to verify that, indeed, the general adaptation syndrome always goes through three phases. Let's dive into them below.

The general adaptation syndrome is the process that we go through naturally in situations of great stress.

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1. Alarm or shock phase

Today, Selye's model is still valid. Studies, such as the one carried out at the University of West Virginia in the United States, They have tried to find fissures and weaknesses in this approach, but its bases remain interesting..

Often, and to verify its effectiveness, it is usually applied to the field of sport, an area that allows us to illustrate these phases very well. The first one is when we are in a highly stressful situation for the first time.

For example, facing an opponent in a tennis, soccer or karate match. We can also take the example of that new job. Our body reacts in the following way:

  • We experience tachycardia and a sense of alarm.
  • The most common thing is to feel paralyzed at the beginning without knowing how to react.
  • Faced with that threatening stimulus, the adrenal system begins to release cortisol, the stress hormone.

If the person manages to overcome this first encounter and take control, the general adjustment syndrome ends here. Now, if not, we move on to the next phase.

2. Resistance phase

When the stressor remains in the environment and we have not yet adapted to it, we reach the resistance phase. At this stage, the level of activation is no longer so high, but the physiological discomfort is still present to a greater or lesser extent. Let's dig a little deeper.

  • Resistance is defined as that sustained inability to face, accept or react to that which exceeds us, worries us or alarms us. The anguish persists; While it is true that we no longer experience as many tachycardias and that we are not trapped in that constant feeling of alertness and hypersensitivity, uncertainty and discomfort continues because we do not adapt.
  • Cortisol continues to be released in our body and this can cause us to experience tiredness, changes in our mood, irritability and concentration problems.

If we do not adapt at this stage to that specific situation and its stressors, we reach a more problematic phase.

3. The general adjustment syndrome and the exhaustion phase

As Dr. M. Carmen Ocaña Méndez explains to us, in her work on the general adaptation syndrome, a good part of the population lives today immersed in the phase of exhaustion.

In other words, many of us live with a persistent state of stress because we do not get used to or manage to cope with the stressful stimuli that surround us.

  • When we spend months in a state of persistent stress, our physical and psychological resources are depleted.
  • The risk of developing certain diseases increases. The most common is to start showing hypertension, digestive disorders, insomnia, musculoskeletal ailments, headaches, dizziness, among others.
  • On the other hand, we cannot lose sight of one fact: chronic stress leads to anxiety disorders.

Stress that is not managed on time can lead to more severe problems, such as anxiety disorders.

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The importance of learning to manage stress

The general adaptation syndrome shows us the importance of managing stress as soon as possible, to avoid reaching the exhaustion phase. Stress that is not managed becomes chronic and, with it, comes discomfort and associated diseases.

We must keep it in mind: managing these states is not only possible but necessary. We all have the resources to do it (Lazarus, 1980). These would be some strategies:

  • Clarify stressful stimuli.
  • Come up with solutions to problems. Avoid that day by day that challenge becomes greater and uncontrollable.
  • Act on emotions. We must try to have control over them and not the other way around.
  • Set new goals every day that favor solving this situation and increase well-being.
  • Live a healthy life, practice relaxation and deep breathing.

Last but not least, let's learn to ask for help when we need it. The support of ours and the intervention of specialized professionals will prevent us from reaching such exhausting limits.

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