The 3 Phases of Stress: Alarm, Resistance and Exhaustion

There are three Phases of stress - according to the work of Hans Selye in 1936- By which the organism passes after being faced with real or perceived threats: alarm, resistance and exhaustion, as well as the phase absent in the response to stress.

Throughout human evolution, our survival has depended on the ability to overcome threatening situations in our lives, from being pursued by predatory animals to recovering from disease. But how do we become aware that a situation is so dangerous that we must adapt and survive it?


Often, we realize that a situation is threatening because our heart rate increases; one of the Side effects of stress . An endocrine born in Vienna called Hans Selye (1907-1982) was the first scientist to point out these side effects and to identify them collectively as the results of stress, a term we routinely use today, but which has not really existed until less than a hundred years ago.

The scientist Hans Selye introduced the model of the General Adaptation Syndrome in 1936, showing in three phases the effects that stress has on the body. In his work, Selye, the father of stress research, developed the theory that stress is the Main cause of many diseases , Since the Chronic stress Causes long-term permanent chemical changes.

Selye noted that the body responds to any biological source of external stress with a predictable biological pattern in an attempt to restore internal body homeostasis. This initial hormonal reaction is the response known as"fight or flight", which aims to deal with the source of stress very quickly, almost automatically.

The process by which our body struggles to maintain balance is what Selye called the General Adaptation Syndrome.

Pressures, stress and other stressors can have a significant influence on our metabolism. Selye determined that there are limited supplies of the energy we use to deal with stress. This amount is decreasing with continuous exposure to the elements that cause us stress.

The stages of stress according to Hans Selye

Going through a series of stages, our body works to recover the stability that the source of stress has taken away. According to the model of the General Adaptation Syndrome, the adaptive response that human beings have to stress is developed in three distinct phases:

1- The alarm phase

Our first reaction to stress is to recognize the existence of danger and to prepare to deal with the threat, a reaction known as the"fight or flight response." The body"decides"quickly if it is more viable to flee or to fight with the stimulus that the threat poses, a reaction engraved in our organism from the beginning of the species.

Activation occurs on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), a part of the endocrine system that controls stress reactions and regulates various functions of the body such as digestion and immune system. He Central Nervous System And the adrenal glands also undergo an activation.

During this phase, the main Stress hormones , he Cortisol , the adrenalin and the Noradrenaline , Are released to provide energy immediately. This energy can have long-term harmful effects if it is not repeatedly used to carry out the physical activity that requires fighting or running away.

An excess of adrenaline results, in the long term, in an increase of the blood pressure that can damage the blood vessels of the heart and the brain ; A risk factor that predisposes to heart attacks and Stroke .

Also, excessive production of the hormone cortisol, which is released at this stage, can cause damage to cells and muscle tissues. Some stress-related disorders resulting from this excessive production of cortisol include cardiovascular conditions, gastric ulcers, and high blood sugar levels.

In this phase, everything is working as it should: you detect a stressful stimulus, your body alarms you with a sudden shake of hormonal changes and you are equipped immediately with the energy needed to manage the threat.

2- The resistance phase

The body changes to the second phase when it is assumed that the source of stress has been resolved. The processes of homeostasis begin to restore balance, leading to a period of recovery and repair.

Stress hormones usually return to their initial levels, but the defenses are reduced and the adaptive energy supplies we use to cope with stress decrease. If the stressful situation persists, the body adapts with a continuous effort of resistance and remains in a state of activation.

Problems begin to manifest when you find yourself repeating this process all too often, without getting a full recovery. Ultimately, this process evolves into the final phase.

3- The exhaustion phase

In this last phase, the stress has been present for some time. Your body's ability to resist has been lost because the energy supplies for adaptation have been exhausted. Known as overhead, Burnout , Adrenal fatigue or dysfunction, this is the stage at which stress levels rise and remain high.

The adaptation process is over and, as you might expect, this stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome is the most dangerous for your health. Chronic stress can cause damage to nerve cells in the tissues and organs of the body.

The Hypothalamus In the brain is particularly vulnerable to these processes. Under conditions of chronic stress, thinking and memory are likely to be impaired, developing a Depressive symptoms Y Anxious .

There may also be negative influences on The autonomic nervous system , Which contributes to produce higher blood pressure, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and others Stress-related illnesses .

The absent phase in the stress response

The key element of this stress response that is lacking in our stress paradigm today is recovery.

Usually there is a recovery time after having been pursued by some predatory animal, but it is more uncommon for us to have a period of compensation after recurring events in our daily lives such as traffic jams, Problems of the couple relationships , to have Inadequate sleep patterns , Problems at work , economic problems…

In fact, these types of stressors can be linked each day making the response to stress"on"continuously.

In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) conducted its annual national survey to examine the state of stress in the country. The main findings were called"Portrait of a pot under national pressure", with almost 80% of respondents reporting Physical symptoms due to stress .

The stress of contemporary days is to blame for many of the complaints that are seen on a day-to-day basis in psychological consultations.


The progressive stages of the General Adaptation Syndrome clearly show where it can lead us to be under conditions of chronic and excessive stress. However, we have the option to keep these processes under control by, for example, some Relaxation techniques Or herbal supplements.

Bibliographic references

  1. General adaptation Syndrome Stages. Psychologist World .
  2. Selye H. (1951) The General Adaptation Syndrome. Annual Review of medicine .
  3. Selye H. (1951) The General Adaptation Syndrome. Essence of stress relief .
  4. Relaxation techniques to calm the stress. Essence of stress relief .

Loading ..

Recent Posts

Loading ..