The General Adaptation Syndrome

According to Selye, the body naturally responds to stress in a three-stage process that he called the general adaptation syndrome. Sparked by the recognition of a threat—such as a predator, an enemy soldier, a speed- ing car, or a virus—the body has an initial alarm reaction. To meet the chal- lenge, adrenaline and other hormones are poured into the bloodstream, creating physiological arousal. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates increase, while slower, long-term functions, such as growth, digestion, and the operation of the immune system, are inhibited. At this stage, the body mobilizes all of its resources to ward off the threat. Next comes a resistance stage, during which the body remains aroused and on the alert. There is continued release of stress hor- mones, and local defenses are activated. But if the stress persists for a prolonged period of time, the body will fall into an exhaustion stage. Selye believed that our antistress resources are limited. In fact, however, exhaustion occurs not because our resources are limited but because their overuse causes other systems in the body to break down, which puts us at risk for illness and even death. Selye’s basic model thus makes an important point: Stress may be an adaptive short- term reaction to threat, but over time it compromises our health and well-being.

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