Stress is more than a feeling; it affects the body physically and causes a tangible impact. In addition to being able to recognize when you are under stress, it is also important to understand the stress cycle to keep stress under control effectively.
The Stress Cycle
The stress cycle, also called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) was proposed by Dr Hans Selye, a medical doctor and researcher, in 1936. The GAS explains the biology behind stress by using a three-phase model: the alarm; the resistance; and the exhaustion phase.
The General Adaptation Syndrome is widely accepted by psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and mental health experts. It is often taught during Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help people learn how to handle stress and improve their quality of life.
Stages of stress
The three stages (or phases) of stress in the stress cycle are as follows.
1. Alarm Stage
This is the initial stage of stress where the body goes into an adrenaline rush. The heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase. The pupils dilate and there is a general feeling of hyper-alertness. The body essentially goes into the well-known ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Regardless of its name, the fight or flight mode does not only happen in face of danger. Emotional stress such as losing a dear one; psychological stress such as trying to pay off debt; or even the stress of awaiting an election result (like Nigerians are going through right now) can activate the alarm stage of stress.
The body responds to all forms of stress the same way – by turning on ‘danger mode’. As the popular Nigerian saying goes “overthinking dey cause hypertension” – this is how it happens.
2. Resistance Stage
The body is wired to make sure that the alarm stage doesn’t last for too long because a protracted state of automatic overdrive can cause a lot of harm to the body. The prolonged secretion of cortisol (the stress hormone) can cause diabetes, inflammation, reduced immunity, obesity and many other unfavourable effects.
In the resistance stage of stress, the body reduces its secretion of cortisol and adrenaline. The heart rate, blood pressure, as well other alarm symptoms start to reduce, even though the stressor remains present.
In this stage, one may easily believe that they are managing stress because they no longer feel stressed-out or worked up, however, that is not necessarily the case. The alarm symptoms and all their consequences remain running in the background. If stress is not dealt with at this stage, it may progress to the last stage. The duration between second and last stage of the GAS varies from person to person.
3. The exhaustion Stage
In medical language, this is the phase where the body begins to decompensate. That simply means that the body can no longer keep up with the work of suppressing the stress symptoms; as the name implies, the body gets exhausted from trying to reduce the secretion of all the hormones responsible for the alarm symptoms. The stress-related hormones then get secreted in large quantities without the body putting up any kind of fight.
In this stage, the body’s biological resistance fails, so there is less immunity to diseases (especially inflammatory and cancers). Emotional is also affected, this is why people in this phase of the stress cycle are typically irritable and intolerant of others. The psychological resistance is not spared, causing individuals to get worked up or burned out easily, because there is a general reduction in all their resistance/coping mechanisms.
How the stress cycle can help you
Now that you understand how stress works, you can effectively combat stress and remain healthy physically, emotionally and psychologically.
It is important to note that the body will not automatically deal with stress without a deliberate input. You can only completely halt the stress cycle by doing these:
- Completely eliminate the stressor. Although this may not be feasible in every case, it is good idea to eliminate your stressors as much as possible. Doing this will stop the stress cycle at the alarm stage.
- Consciously manage stress. The end goal of stress management techniques is the release of endorphins, the ‘feel good’ hormones from the brain. Even when you still have stressors present, the release of adequate endorphins will counteract the effects of stress hormones and stop all their effects.
Learn more about stress management HERE
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