Chapter 1: Stress

Selye and the General Adaptation Syndrome

Another important early contributor to the stress field was Hans Selye, mentioned earlier. He would eventually become one of the world’s foremost experts in the study of stress. As a young assistant in the biochemistry department at McGill University in the 1930s, Selye was engaged in research involving sex hormones in rats. Although he was unable to find an answer for what he was initially researching, he incidentally discovered that when exposed to prolonged negative stimulation (stressors)—such as extreme cold, surgical injury, excessive muscular exercise, and shock—the rats showed signs of adrenal enlargement, thymus and lymph node shrinkage, and stomach ulceration. Selye realized that these responses were triggered by a coordinated series of physiological reactions that unfold over time during continued exposure to a stressor. These physiological reactions were nonspecific, which means that regardless of the type of stressor, the same pattern of reactions would occur. What Selye discovered was the general adaptation syndrome, the body’s nonspecific physiological response to stress.

The general adaptation syndrome, shown in Figure 9, consists of three stages: (1) alarm reaction, (2) stage of resistance, and (3) stage of exhaustion (Selye, 1936; 1976). Alarm reaction describes the body’s immediate reaction upon facing a threatening situation or emergency, and it is roughly analogous to the fight-or-flight response described by Cannon. During an alarm reaction, you are alerted to a stressor, and your body alarms you with a cascade of physiological reactions that provide you with the energy to manage the situation. A person who wakes up in the middle of the night to discover her house is on fire, for example, is experiencing an alarm reaction.

A line graph shows the stress resistance on the y axis and time on the x axis. It shows that overtime proglonged stress results in exhaustion.
Figure 9 The three stages of Selye’s general adaptation syndrome are shown in this graph. Prolonged stress ultimately results in exhaustion.

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Selye and the General Adaptation Syndrome by Allen Urich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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