Let’s talk about GAS!
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
And this has nothing do with hydrogen or cooking gas!
This read examines the stress adaptation mechanism.
Leah is about to enter a very hectic phase at work. Their boss has just informed them that they have to take over some projects temporarily in place of a colleague who has had to take a sudden indefinite leave of absence for medical reasons. Now, while it is a big responsibility and a challenge that Leah welcomes; it is a bit daunting and they are feeling a little overwhelmed with the pressure. Not to mention, that Leah is hard-pressed for time, having to juggle personal commitments along with the responsibilities at work.
As Leah maneuvers the stressors coming their way, their body will react to the continued stress by activating the fight-flight response. And this repeated activating of fight-flight responses results in what is described as the General Adaptation Syndrome or GAS.
So what is Stress ?
According to the American Psychological Association, Stress may be defined as the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors. Stressors may be defined as any event, force, or condition that results in physical or emotional stress. Stressors may be internal or external forces that require adjustment or coping strategies on the part of the affected individual.
Now that we’ve understood a little bit about stress and stressors, let’s continue with GAS.
The theory of GAS was first introduced in 1936 by Hans Selye who was a Vienna-born doctor and researcher working in the 20th century. According to Hans Selye, the body uses three predictable stages to respond to stress.
Now before we break down GAS, let us understand the Fight or Flight response.
The Fight or Flight response is a physiological response that gets triggered when we feel a strong emotion like fear. When we are faced a danger or a threat to our well-being, - an attacking animal, an approaching deadline, etc. - 'fear' is the typical emotion we might feel in response to it. The Fight or Flight response evolved to help us to react with appropriate actions – we might run away, fight it, or we might freeze so as to be a less prominent target.
Now allow me to elaborate a little on GAS.
The 3 stages of GAS briefly are as follows:
1- Alarm stage – during which the body will react to the stressors with a burst of energy and the fight – fight stage is activated.
2- Resistance stage – during which the body will adapt or resist the stressor
3- Exhaustion stage – during which energy is depleted if the stress persists and the body will become susceptible to illness, or even death.
Stage 1 - Alarm Stage
The first stage is the alarm stage and is marked by activation of the fight-flight response which is its initial reaction to stress. The fight-flight response results in physiological arousal. Two body hormones – epinephrine and norepinephrine - are released. Epinephrine activates release of glucose and fatty acid from fatty cells that act as energy to respond to stress. These will also cause an increase in one’s heart rate and blood pressure.
The body will go into and out of the Alarm stage (fight-flight response) many times during the day as stressful situations come and go. Typically, an individual may not develop psychosomatic problems during the alarm stage as the fight-flight responses come and go. However, if the individual is exposed to the stress for a longer period of time, the body will go into the resistance stage.
If the stressor ceases to exist, the body will return to its normal level of resistance.
Let's take a look at Leah's situation: Leah is aware that a lot depends on their handling of the projects seamlessly. They are nervous about how they will pull this off. After assessing the work situation, they become aware that it is a big threat to their well-being. All this will send their body into the Alarm stage.
Stage 2 - Resistance Stage
During the Resistance stage, the parasympathetic branch of the ANS tries to return the body to normal. The amount of cortisol produced is reduced, and the heart rate and blood pressure start to return to normal. If the stressful situation comes to an end, during the resistance stage, the body will then return to normal. However, if the stressor remains, the body will stay in a state of alert, and stress hormones continue to be produced. If the stress persists, the body will go into the Exhaustion stage and the psychosomatic symptom may worsen.
At the Resistance stage, Leah’s body uses up vital reserves of hormones and glucose because their body is almost continually in the fight-flight state. Leah doesn’t realize that this is taking a toll on them when they starts experiencing frequent headaches and get more irritable at work and the home front. Their body will go into the exhaustion stage and. And as explained above, their psychosomatic symptom may worsen if the stress continues. They will then enter the third stage, i.e. Exhaustion stage.
Stage 3 - Exhaustion Stage
An individual who is exposed to stress for extended periods of time may find themselves reeling from the effects, their emotional, physical, and mental resources drained. Their body may no longer even have the strength to fight stress. They may experience symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, burnout. They may also be prone to stress related ailments.
During the Exhaustion stage, Leah may start experiencing the burnout from juggling all the responsibilities. This may be accompanied by other physiological symptoms like a loss of appetite, fatigue. Her headaches may also get more frequent, and severe too.
Everyone experiences stress at some point or the other. While it is not possible to remove every single stressor from one’s life, one can learn about how stress affects us and also incorporate strategies to manage stress and maintain optimal health. Doing this is essential to one’s physical and emotional well-being as stress can contribute to mental fatigue, irritability, insomnia and even physical ailments.
In today’s day and age, there is an increase in the consumption of alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes, sugary foods, drugs and energy drinks in order to deal with life’s stressors. This in turn is resulting in even more stressful reactions in the body. Thus, stress, whether perceived as good or bad, passive or active, our bodies’ response is intended to preserve life. It is essentially a survival mechanism.
Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. British medical journal, 1(4667), 1383–1392. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.1.4667.1383.
VandenBos, G. R. (2015). APA dictionary of psychology. Second edition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Plotnik, R., & Kouyoumdjian, H. (2011). Introduction to psychology. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth CENGAGE Learning.