What Are The Three Stages Of Stress And How To Cope

By: Tanisha Herrin

Updated September 18, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Many of us find it difficult to cope with stress. Feeling pressure to meet a deadline, juggling tasks at home, experiencing relationship conflicts, or dealing with 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.

Constant Stress Can Take A Serious Toll
Learn Healthy Coping Techniques From A Licensed Therapist Today.

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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 suffer. 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 with far less energy than normal. You may fall ill easier 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 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 needed.
  • 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.
    Constant Stress Can Take A Serious Toll
    Learn Healthy Coping Techniques From A Licensed Therapist Today.

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  • 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 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 deal with 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 and private way to connect with a licensed counselor who can help you cope with stress based on your specific needs.

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BetterHelp Cares about Your Stress Relief

BetterHelp has a team of experienced counselors that understand the difficulties of dealing with stress. Whether you need someone to talk to or someone to help you see things from a positive perspective, the counselors can help you understand how stress is affecting your life and how to regain control. They understand 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 wellbeing. 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. I'm really grateful for her time to listen to what's on my mind and really making me comfortable to share so much with her. Thank you, Alisha!"

"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, encouragement and doesn't judge. Thanks Karen!"


Understanding the stages of stress is a big step toward 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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