Stages Of Stress: How Stress Progresses


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You might have heard that stress causes disease, but is that really true? Well, it depends. If that equivocating answer leaves you scratching your head, Hans Selye, the Hungarian endocrinologist who is known as the "Father of Stress" - what a title! - has a better answer. His theory, called the General Adaptation Syndrome, explains how our bodies react to stress - and why some stressors can lead to disease while others boost your immune system. Learn the three stages of stress to better manage your health.

  1. The Alarm Stage

The first stage of stress is the classic fight, flight, or freeze response. The body enters a state of hyperarousal as it prepares to respond to a perceived threat. Note that the threat may not even be real - it could be imagined. Unlike our caveman ancestors who faced deadly threats like an attacking tiger, modern human face more subtle, chronic stressors. Some of these stressors are future fears or past guilt - nothing like a hungry tiger approaching your family.


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But even though our sources of stress have changed since cavemen roamed the Earth, our hardwiring is still very similar. Therefore, many people respond to an upcoming test or looming deadline as though their lives were at stake - the same way they would respond to a tiger. Physiological changes include: rapid heart rate, profuse sweating, cool skin, narrow vision, heightened senses, and tense muscles.

2. The Resistance Stage

Unlike the stressors our cavemen ancestors faced, our stressors tend to linger for weeks, months, and even years. Whether it is a demanding job, wild and crazy kids, or financial problems, chronic stressors take a toll on the body. But the body is remarkably adaptable. It does its best to fight the good fight, even in the face of prolonged stress.


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During the resistance stage, the body tries to restore normal functioning. The parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response) kicks back on in order to stimulate key physiological processes, like digestion. But remember, the stressor is still there. Even during this stage, there continues to be elevated levels of stress hormones circulating in the blood, wreaking havoc.

3. The Exhaustion Stage

The resistance stage may last for several years - the length of time depends on the individual and the severity of stress. But at some point, when a person combats stress for too long, he or she becomes exhausted. At this point, the body has run out of resources and it can no longer handle the stressor. This stage is also known as burnout, and it is very dangerous.

Chronic illness and disease is a common feature of this stage. Anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, obesity, diabetes, and even cancer are some possible consequences of becoming exhausted.


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But how can stress trigger disease? Hormones communicate with immune cells, and high levels of stress hormones kick the immune system into overdrive, causing inflammation. Short-term stress jump starts the immune system, giving it a boost. But long-term stress leads to chronic inflammation, which ultimately exhausts the immune system. It is no longer able to adequately address internal and external threats to wellbeing, so chronic disease takes hold.

See An Online Counselor to Manage the Stages of Stress


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The good news is that you can avoid becoming exhausted. With the help of an online counselor, you can prevent exhaustion, or if you have already reached exhaustion and are suffering with a chronic disease, you can learn how to better manage stress going forward. Talk to an online therapist today to develop coping skills and strategies to combat the insidious effects of stress.


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