Stages Of Stress: How Stress Progresses

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated May 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Stress is a naturally occurring response in the body that directly impacts overall health. However, when chronic or prolonged, stress can be linked to numerous physical and mental health concerns. It can be challenging to recognize when you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed, so it may be valuable to understand the stages of stress to manage it before it becomes chronic.

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Stress can be difficult to navigate

What are the stages of stress? 

How the body responds to stress, also known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS), involves a sequence of three stages. The three main stages of stress include the following: 

  • The alarm phase (fight or flight)
  • The resistance phase (adaptation) 
  • The exhaustion phase

The alarm phase: What happens when stress first occurs 

When you encounter a difficult or threatening situation your nervous system, specifically your brain may initiate the alarm phase of the stress response. This phase is the body's built-in defense mechanism against a threat, and it's here that the fight or flight response kicks in. The brain activates the hypothalamus, which incites responses from other body parts. Next, hormones are released into the bloodstream to prepare you for fight or flight. Your respiration may increase, and your heart may start to race. 

As this process occurs, blood is sent away from non-essential areas like the digestive tract and toward more essential systems necessary for survival. This process can help you focus on immediate threats. However, it can have adverse physical impacts if it happens regularly or for a prolonged period. 

The resistance phase: How the body reacts 

During the resistance phase of stress, the body starts to alleviate symptoms from the alarm stage through the parasympathetic nervous system. Production of cortisol and adrenaline is decreased, and the body may try to control itself to return to baseline. 

During this stage, if the stressor that incited the alarm phase ends, your body can return to normal. However, if the stress persists, stress hormones will continue and may lead to the exhaustion phase of the cycle. Increased stress during this stage may lead to irritation, emotional responses, or sensory challenges. 

Exhaustion phase: The effects and symptoms of prolonged stress

Prolonged stress over an extended period can bring about the exhaustion phase, characterized by physical and mental fatigue, pessimism, isolation, and depletion of energy reserves. Individuals may also experience a lack of concentration and difficulty making decisions. Many studies refer to this stage as mental burnout, which can be associated with higher rates of depression. 

As the body's reserves decrease, so does its ability to cope with stressors or use effective coping strategies. Therefore, it can be beneficial to recognize early signs of imminent exhaustion and intervene accordingly to reduce further risk of high-impact consequences such as poor health or psychological distress.

Creating a balance between work, rest, and relaxation can be essential to maintain resilience during prolonged stress.

The impacts of stress on the body and mind

Below are several ways that stress can impact your body and mind throughout your life. 

Physiological responses to stress

Your physical body is complex, and the physiological stress response is your body's way of enabling you to adjust to different challenges and conditions. Stress, for example, causes physiological changes throughout the body, such as increased heart rate, deeper breathing, and elevations in blood pressure.

Responding to situations this way may make you feel more alert to identify threats or dangers and react accordingly. Physiological responses are also beneficial for non-life-threatening situations, potentially enabling you to have more energy or focus when needed. However, these responses can deplete energy and cause mental burnout when they occur in the long term. 

Cognitive reactions to stress

When individuals experience a stressful situation, their cognitive abilities may be affected in various ways. For example, research has shown that those under stress perform worse on tests of verbal ability and attention than those not under pressure.

In addition, those experiencing stress may have difficulty concentrating, their working memory can be reduced, and their ability to process complex information may become impaired. 

At the same time, some cognitive functions are improved due to stress, such as short-term memory for simple tasks. Even though this effect could seem counterintuitive, it serves an evolutionary purpose: Those who can remember information quickly during a stressful event may be better prepared to survive.

Social adjustment to stress

Stress may profoundly affect your life, so it can be beneficial to understand how your mind adjusts to and copes with the pressure. Social adjustment can play a significant role in relieving stress.

You may be more likely to succeed in managing and resolving stressful situations when you find comfort or support in the company of people close to you. Whether through intimate gatherings or group activities, learning to reach out and interact effectively with friends, family, and other supportive outlets can help create positive energy that reduces stress levels.

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Understanding chronic stress and its impacts

Chronic stress can result from ongoing exposure to stressful situations or events over time. The body's natural response to stress, which releases cortisol and other hormones to increase metabolism, can strain the body in the long run.

For example, individuals dealing with chronic stress may experience headaches, sleep disturbances, fatigue, irritability, and digestive concerns. In addition, chronic stress can have a damaging psychological impact, leading to depression and other mental health conditions. However, there are ways to proactively manage chronic stress through self-care, nutrition, exercise, talk therapy, and healthy relationship behaviors. 

Managing your stress through self-care strategies

Self-care strategies can be essential for supporting a healthy relationship with your own stress and anxiety levels. With stress management, you can set a goal to reduce daily stress responses and have more control over your behavioral responses to your stress. 

Self-care practices improve emotional, mental, and physical resilience when faced with stressful experiences. Activities like yoga, meditation, deep breathing, journaling, and other mindful practices can make you aware of your needs and provide comfort and support throughout stressful periods.

Additionally, executing daily leisure activities like reading a book, walking, or scheduling time for loved ones can reduce stress hormones while supporting emotional coherence. If taken seriously, such actions can maintain high emotional well-being while improving overall health outlooks in the long run.

Benefits of therapy for stress

Therapy can be a beneficial tool for managing stress and mental health challenges. Studies have shown that psychotherapy can change brain chemistry and reduce cortisol levels. It can also allow people to develop healthier coping strategies that help them handle daily stressors more effectively.

During therapy sessions, clients can discuss their concerns openly with an experienced professional and gain new perspectives and valuable advice. Furthermore, therapy may improve sleep quality and relationships and is often linked to overall well-being and positive stress management outcomes.

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Stress can be difficult to navigate

Effectiveness of therapy for stress 

Recent studies have highlighted the effectiveness of various therapeutic techniques in combating stress, including the following options. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the concept that your thoughts influence your feelings and behavior. By changing dysfunctional thinking to more positive, realistic thinking, CBT gives individuals the skills to tackle stressful situations and develop healthier coping mechanisms for future occurrences.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) 

Another form of therapy, called exposure and response prevention (ERP), is effective in helping individuals approach feared stimuli in a controlled and systematic way, desensitizing them from their fears and potential causes of stress. 

Relaxation training 

Relaxation training with a licensed therapist, such as meditation, improves stress levels by helping the individual find a peaceful state of mind, subsequently minimizing tension and anxiety. 

Online therapy

One form of effective stress reduction therapy is online counseling. Many people may find that aspects of in-person therapy, such as cost, planning, distance, or availability, are stressors that make therapy less effective. With an online platform, you may be able to avoid these stressors and receive support for chronic stress simultaneously. 

Studies have also found online therapy effective in the reduction of prolonged stress. One study found that home-based internet cognitive-behavioral therapy was associated with "large and significant improvements" in chronic stress symptoms, and these results were maintained at the six-month follow-up visit. 

If you're interested in trying online counseling for stress, consider signing up with a platform like BetterHelp, which offers connections to an extensive database of licensed therapists, counselors, and social workers offering support in various specialties. 

Takeaway

Chronic stress affects individuals in mental, physical, and emotional ways. When your body faces prolonged stress, it can lead to physiological responses, mental changes, behavioral adjustments, and higher risks of illness. Understanding these changes may be the first step toward finding ways to reduce and manage the risks. 

Self-care strategies like relaxation techniques, yoga, mindfulness exercises, deep breathing, and talk therapy can help reduce stress and build resilience. In addition, you can talk to a therapist at any time to receive research-backed coping mechanisms and further support.

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