What Are The Three Stages Of Stress And How Can You Cope?

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many of us find it difficult to cope with stress. Feeling pressure to meet a deadline, juggling tasks at home, experiencing relationship conflicts, or struggling with symptoms related to health issues are typical stressors. While it's important to understand what triggers your stress, learning how it affects your body may give new insight on how to handle it. Did you know stress affects the body in stages? Let's explore the stages of stress, along with healthy tips to get relief.

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Constant stress can take a serious toll

Understanding the three stages of stress

The three stages of stress are part of a scientific concept known as General Adaption Syndrome (GAS). Vienna-born scientist Hans Selye was the first to study elements related to GAS. The stages are part of a process the body goes through when stress occurs, including mental and physical effects. These mental and physical effects are the body's reaction to stressors as a form of defense. The three stages of stress include the following:

1. Alarm

The first stage of stress is your body's immediate reaction.

Anything can trigger the response, and each person has different levels of tolerance and sensitivity. You may notice an increased heart rate, sweating, nervous fidgeting, or feeling tense, anxious, worried, or scared as your body reacts to the cause of your stress. The sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, and biological changes occur to make you poised to take action. This reaction is part of our innate tendency towards a "fight or flight" response, which results in a burst of adrenaline through our system.

2. Resistance

The second stage of the stress response is when our bodies attempt to return to a normal balance, counteracting the "alarm" response in the first stage. Generally, when you enter into this stage, you'll begin to feel calmer. The parasympathetic nervous system begins to bring down the heart rate, your body's physiological functions return to normal, and you can better focus on attending to the source of the stress. In this phase, however, you may think you can handle more stress, or get the impression the threat has passed because the sense of urgency is reduced. But if the cause persists, the body can experience adverse effects. Fatigue, sleep disturbances, irritability, poor concentration, chronic anxiety, and other issues can develop because the body is essentially still on alert without the alarm bells ringing.

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3. Exhaustion

The final stress stage is exhaustion, which results from your body trying to combat stress for an extended period. Typically, in this stage you find yourself feeling run down and having far less energy than normal. You may fall ill more easily as your immune system can also weaken due to stress. This stage is a signal that your stress is severe. Long-term psychological changes can occur as well, causing you to become depressed, possibly sleep deprived, or chronically anxious.

Studies have shown that life events such as financial troubles, job loss, medical issues, and breakdowns in relationships may lead to chronic or long-term stress. Chronic stress may increase chances of diabetes, heart disease, ulcers, viral infections, or depression.

Stress management: Tips for coping

If you're experiencing bouts of stress and find it's affecting your daily activities, there are a few things you can do to find relief.

Notice your body's stress signals

First, take a moment to be aware of the signs of stress, and accept that you're unable to handle this stress without some other means of intervention. Accept that you need to take care of your mind and body. Notice if you're feeling tense, anxious, irritable, or worried. Are some of your behaviors changing, such as eating habits, alcohol consumption, or work performance? Also, make an assessment of your physical health, perhaps even getting a physical exam.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Adjust your thoughts

Attempt positive thinking. You might feel like it won't help, but continually making an effort to have positive thoughts about some aspects of your experience can change your attitude and make whatever you're stressed about appear less daunting. Along with attitude changes, you may want to consider if you're being too self-critical or your goals are too high to achieve. You may find it helpful to reassess your goals and work-life balance or reconsider your belief system regarding sources of stress. Also, try to be gentle with yourself and avoid critical self-talk. 

Help your body relax

Simple relaxation techniques can help you calm down and moderate the stress effect. These include taking slow, deep breaths whenever needed while focusing on how your body feels. Try going for a walk while paying close attention to what you see and how your feet feel on the ground, rather than focusing on what you're thinking. Watch a TV show you enjoy or listen to soothing music. Give or receive a hug from a loved one. Try a relaxation video or audiotape or read a book about stress management to develop new techniques that seem right for you.

Get more rest

Improve your sleep health by maintaining a regular sleep pattern whenever possible. Create a bedtime ritual to help you settle down and relax prior to bed. Avoid blue light an hour before bedtime and leave the phone away from the bedside when possible. Avoid caffeine after noon and try a sleep-inducing tea before bedtime, such as chamomile.

Engage in productive activities

Distract yourself. If what you're stressed about is out of your control, attempting to distract yourself can be an effective way of coping. Try meeting up with a friend, starting a new hobby, getting some work done around the house, or volunteering for a local cause. Sometimes focusing on work helps take your mind off stressful situations. If you feel too stressed to manage things on your own, it's okay to reach out. There are other ways to cope with stress, including professional treatment to support and encourage proper mental and physical health. Online counseling offers a convenient way to connect with a licensed counselor who can help you cope with stress based on your specific needs.

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Constant stress can take a serious toll

BetterHelp cares about your stress relief

Online therapy has helped those with a wide range of mental health issues, including those managing the effects of stress. Online cognitive behavior therapy has been very effective in helping individuals break down the origins of their stress and develop strategies for coping in a healthy way.

BetterHelp has a team of experienced counselors who understand the difficulties of stress management. Whether you need someone to talk to or someone to help you see things from a positive perspective, counselors can help you understand how stress is affecting your life and how to regain control. They understand that stress affects people differently and want to help you establish effective coping skills. Connect with an online counselor that cares about your emotional and physical well-being. 

At BetterHelp, we're all about affordability and convenience. Our licensed therapists can meet with you at a time and place that works best with your busy schedule, all at a reasonable price. All that's needed is an electronic device—such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone—and a reliable internet connection.

Read some reviews about BetterHelp counselors below.

Counselor reviews

"Alisha has let me view situations in another perspective. Like the stressful times I've gone (still going) through with my family and my work. 

"Karen is amazing. I've never done therapy before and was very skeptical of it. I also wasn't sure if I wanted to talk about my stresses, feelings and opening up about work and relationships. Karen has made it very easy to do that, and very appreciative of the work she does. I've been working with Karen for 3 weeks and have seen big improvements and changes in my life. Very thankful for Karen and this platform. It is really amazing to talk to someone that listens and offers great advice and encouragement and doesn't judge. Thanks, Karen!"

Takeaway

Understanding the stages of stress is a big step toward finding relief. Using the above suggestions may help you manage stress with practice and patience. Reach out to a therapist and regain the control you want to live a better life today.
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