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Hans Selye’s

General Adaptation Syndrome

Scientist Hans Selye (1907-1982) introduced the General Adaptation Syndrome model in 1936
showing in three phases what the alleged effects of stress has on the body.

In his work, Selye - 'the father of stress research,' developed the theory that stress is a major cause of
disease because chronic stress causes long-term chemical changes.

He observed that the body would respond to any external biological source of stress with a predictable
biological pattern in an attempt to restore the body’s internal homeostasis.

This initial hormonal reaction is your fight or flight stress response - and its purpose is for handling stress
very quickly! The process of the body’s struggle to maintain balance is what Selye termed, the General
Adaptation Syndrome.

Pressures, tensions, and other stressors can greatly influence your normal metabolism. Selye determined
that there is a limited supply of adaptive energy to deal with stress. That amount declines with
continuous exposure.

Going through a series of steps, your body consistently works to regain stability. With the general
adaptation syndrome, a human’s adaptive response to stress has three distinct phases:


Your first reaction to stress recognizes there’s a danger and prepares to deal with the threat, a.k.a. the
fight or flight response. Activation of the HPA axis, the nervous system (SNS) and the adrenal glands
take place.

During this phase the main stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, is released to provide
instant energy.

If this energy is repeatedly not used by physical activity, it can become harmful.

Too much adrenaline results in a surge of blood pressure that can damage blood vessels of the heart and
brain – a risk factor in heart attack and stroke.

The excess production of the cortisol hormone can cause damage to cells and muscle tissues. Stress
related disorders and disease from cortisol include cardiovascular conditions, stroke, gastric ulcers, and
high blood sugar levels.

At this stage everything is working as it should – you have a stressful event, your body alarms you with a
sudden jolt of hormonal changes, and you are now immediately equipped with enough energy to handle

The body shifts into this second phase with the source of stress being possibly resolved. Homeostasis
begins restoring balance and a period of recovery for repair and renewal takes place.

Stress hormone levels may return to normal but you may have reduced defenses and adaptive energy

If a stressful condition persists, your body adapts by a continued effort in resistance and remains in a state
of arousal.

Problems begin to manifest when you find yourself repeating this process too often with little or no
recovery. Ultimately this moves you into the final stage.


At this phase, the stress has continued for some time. Your body’s ability to resist is lost because its
adaptation energy supply is gone. Often referred to as overload, burnout, adrenal fatigue, maladaptation
or dysfunction – Here is where stress levels go up and stay up!

The adaptation process is over and not surprisingly; this stage of the general adaptation syndrome is
the most hazardous to your health.

Chronic stress can damage nerve cells in tissues and organs. Particularly vulnerable is the hippocampus
section of the brain. Thinking and memory are likely to become impaired, with tendency toward anxiety
and depression.

There can also be adverse function of the autonomic nervous system that contributes to high blood
pressure, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and other stress related illness.

The progressive stages of the general adaptation syndrome clearly show where having excessive stress
can lead. Given a choice, why would anyone purposely choose this path? You may want to check out
some relaxation techniques or perhaps an herbal stress relief strategy to help bring this under control.

The sources of stress are numerous with our hectic lifestyles, but luckily there are just as many ways to
relieve stress and still keep up and keep going.

“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its
survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”

~ Hans Selye
Prepared By:

Niccolo E. Bayona StN 3-BSN-B

Selye's Three-Stage Model of Stress

Hans Selye (pronounced Sel-yeay) is regarded as the father of the modern concept of stress. He first popularised the
word. He spent most of his life in laboratory and clinical research into the physical aspects of resistance and
adaptation to demands. His life's work began when as an Austro-Hungarian medical student in the 1920's he noticed
some striking similarities in his patients as they experienced a variety of illnesses. This set him off on a lifelong
quest to discover the common physiological processes involved in "just being sick."

Selye found that our bodies react to stress - like the stress of being ill - with a recognisable pattern of responses.
There can be up to three phases that our resistance levels go through when we are exposed to a stressor. The first is
the alarm phase. The body's resistance to physical damage drops for a short-time. This is so our bodies can prepare
to cope with the stressor by using up available energy and normally protective stress hormones. Temporarily some
of our defences against physical damage drop so that our blood pressure increases, blood-sugar rises, muscle tension
increases, we breathe faster and deeper and we get a surge of adrenaline-like substances to give us extra physical
capabilities should we need them. If the stressor no longer exists the body returns to its normal level of resistance.

However if the stressor persists, (we can't fight or flee from it or - and this goes beyond his original thinking - we are
unable to apply counteracting psychosocial resources) our level of resistance increases beyond normal, relaxed
levels. Our bodies start to run in higher gear. High levels of stress hormones continue to help us cope with the
stressor. This is appropriately called the resistance phase. If there is no relief the body can continue for days,
weeks, even years until either the stressor is suddenly removed or because it is very energy-consuming our body
collapses often with more dangerous and extreme physical reactions. They are the same as in the alarm phase
only more intense and more relentless. It is here in this third or exhaustion phase that our health suffers or even
death can occur. Our level of resistance to physical disorder, disease and psychological pressure is at its lowest. It is
characterised by feelings of lethargy - an absence of energy and bodily resources to cope. The most likely physical
and psychological signs and symptoms are the constitutional weak links discoverable in our personal histories and
genetic inheritances.

A common example of the third phase response is the high incidence of death in the first year or so of retirement for
those not prepared for it and who have suddenly ended 40 years in a stressful, demanding job without much
relaxation. Another example is the weekend headache, or the high incidence of illness during our holidays or the
baffling feeling of anxiety or depression, not so much during our experience of a stressful period in our lives, but
more so later when the pressure is off. Selye's research explains this delayed reaction in terms of major shifts in the
body's hormonal balance during the later phase of stress in which we have to, as it were, payback our overdrawn
stress account. His research shows however that the fitter we are, the better our eating and drinking habits, if we do
not smoke and if we are able to listen to our bodies and get periodic relief from otherwise continuing, relentless
stress, the less likely we will suffer the ill effects of the exhaustion. The main lesson we learn from his work is that
high levels of stress hormones are meant to be released only briefly. If they continue without enough time to
recharge then our resistance is severely lessened.

Selye's monumental work in the field of stress research was mostly with animals rather than humans. So a limitation
of this exclusively physiological model is that it does not account for emotional and mental factors have the
potential to alter the course of this triphasic response to stress. Nevertheless, it can be a very useful model in
understanding and predicting the course of human illness and disease.
Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

If you would like to learn more about the GAS try these webpage links or use a good search engine like using 'Selye
General Adaptation Syndrome' as a your search term.

His fascinating autobiography "The stress of my life - a scientist's memoirs" (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1979)
discusses in layman's terms his experiments on stress, the adaptation syndrome, inflammation, syntoxic and
catatoxic hormones, related human behaviour and his "altruistic-egoism" philosophy on life. This recounting of his
struggles and successes is an inspirational book for those contemplating a research career.

The following is an extract from a brief biography on Selye published on the Internet by McGraw-Hill publishers.

"Hans Selye was born in Vienna in 1907. As early as his second year of medical school (1926), he began developing
his now-famous theory of the influence of stress on people's ability to cope with and adapt to the pressures of injury
and disease. He discovered that patients with a variety of ailments manifested many similar symptoms, which he
ultimately attributed to their bodies' efforts to respond to the stresses of being ill. He called this collection of
symptoms--this separate stress disease--stress syndrome, or the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

He spent a lifetime in continuing research on GAS and wrote some 30 books and more than 1,500 articles on stress
and related problems, including Stress without Distress (1974) and The Stress of Life (1956). So impressive have his
findings and theories been that some authorities refer to him as "the Einstein of medicine."

A physician and endocrinologist with many honorary degrees for his pioneering contributions to science, Selye also
served as a professor and director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the University of
Montreal. More than anyone else, Selye has demonstrated the role of emotional responses in causing or combating
much of the wear and tear experienced by human beings throughout their lives. He died in 1982 in Montreal, where
he had spent 50 years studying the causes and consequences of stress."
General Adaptation Syndrome

Psychologist Hans Selye described the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) where initial
observations about infectious reactions led to the discovery that stress can lead to infection,
illness, disease and death. There are three stages that he discovered: Alarm, Resistance and

When we are surprised or threatened, we have an immediate physical reaction, often called the
Fight-or-Flight reaction. This prepares the body for life-threatening situations, channeling away
resources from such as the digestive and immune system to more immediate muscular and
emotional needs. This leads to the immune system being depressed, making us susceptible to

As we become used to the stress levels, we initially become more resistance to disease, which
leads us to believe we can easily adapt to these more stressful situations. However, this is only
the immune system fighting to keep up with demands and expectations, but requires it to work at
abnormally high levels.

Eventually reality kicks in and our bodies give up on trying to maintain a high level of stress.
Parts of the body literally start to break down and we become very unwell. If we continue to
fight this situation, we may even die.

Stress as a Response : General Adaptation Syndrome (Hans Selye


• Hans Selye from McGill University says Stress is a nonspecific response of the
body to any demand made upon it. Regardless of the stressor the reaction is
the same . This is known as General Adaptation Syndrome
• General Adaptation Syndrome has three stages:
o Stage One:The Alarm Reaction
 body is programmed for homeostasis ( a balanced state)
 when a stressor is presented body goes into flight or fight mode
 blood pressure increases, respiration rate increases; muscles
tense; digestion is inhibited; heart rate increases; blood flow
increase to extremities; adrenaline is secreted; perspiration
 in ancient times stressor would present and disappear; now
stressor may not be as serious but may be seen in many places
resulting in prolonged stress reactions
 stress may be real or imagined
o Stage Two:The Resistance Phase
 body signs of stress disappear; resistance rises; neural
glandular systems become hyperactive; person remains in
constant state of overstimulation
o Stage Three: The Exhaustion Stage
 Body exhausts itself and physical signs of stress reappear; now
these may become irreversible; example high blood pressure

Distress versus Eustress

• not all stress is bad

• some seek stress -high sensation seeker-adrenaline junkie may be stressed
when bored
• stress may play a part in healthy functioning; some stress challenges
• distress is negative and unwanted; Eustress produces positive feelings-
enjoying the energy