General Adaptation Syndrome

External Reading: Selye’s Concept of General Adaptation Syndrome

Read this page called Selye’s Concept of General Adaptation Syndrome.

Hans Selye’s Study of Stress Response

In 1934, Hans Selye at McGill University discovered a new type of hormone. He gave rats daily injections of ovarian extract and found that the rats had enlarged adrenals and shrunken spleens, thymus, lymph nodes, and intestinal ulcers. “Multiple organs in the body generate this hormone, and thus he announced that it is a nonspecific response of body to noxious agents. (Evan-Martin, 2007)

In 1936, Selye defined these series of symptoms in the experiments with the rats as the General Adaptation Syndrome, which consists of three stages: the alarm stage, the resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage (Evan-Martin, 2007). The alarm stage is similar to the fight-to-flight response, and the body mobilizes resources to react to the incoming noxious agent. The resistance forces will be built up when the noxious challenge is detected as continuing. The exhaustion stage will cause death if the body is unable to overcome the threat.

For example, your mom told you that you are going to take the SAT next month. The first reaction is shock, starting complaints and feelings of stress, which represent the beginning of the first stage. In the resistance stage, you will try your best to do practice tests, reviewing vocabulary, studying any type of study aids that are available. Finally, you will feel like you are doomed to fail this test and feel desperate, feel constantly anxious, have difficulty falling asleep and waking up in the morning. The exhaustion of this stage will have deleterious effects on your health by depleting your body resources which are crucial for the maintenance of normal functions. Your immune system will be exhausted and function will be impaired. Also, the decomposition which is a functional deterioration of body may happen as the exhaustion stage extends. Selye believed that one becomes sick at that point because stored hormones secrete during the stress response are depleted (Sapolsky, 1998).

Distress may be destructive to health

Hans Selye’s research that led to the concept of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) demonstrated that stress that is perceived as a threat (distress) may be debilitating if it is continuous. But even “flow” could go on too long and the person would need a break. But “flow” only develops in activities that are freely engaged in. Negative stress, or distress, is often part of activities that we perceive we cannot escape. Our bodies and minds seem to have evolved to cope well with sudden and brief stressors, such as escaping attack by a predator. We do not seem to be designed to handle chronic stress even if it is mild, like driving in heavy traffic. Our society has created many conditions that produce chronic stress and are associated with stress related illnesses. We have time pressures, work pressures, relationship pressures, crowding, noise, crime, to many things to do in too little time, achievement pressures, and even education-related pressures in this course. It is this detrimental effect of ongoing stress that underlies the GAS and the concepts of stress-induced health problems.

Learning Activity

Watch the video titled Stressed by Stress and take the ungraded quiz.

External Reading: Eustress

Read this page called Eustress.