According to the American Psychological Association, 52% of adult Americans live with high stress. The role of stress in health is complex, but evidence suggests that stress can increase vulnerability to many ailments. Several theories have been proposed to explain the relationship between stress and disease.

The General Adaptation Syndrome

Biologist Hans Selye was one of the first scientists to develop a comprehensive theory of stress and disease. Based on his work in the 1930s and 1940s, Selye coined the term general adaptation syndrome (GAS) to describe what he believed to be a universal and predictable response pattern to all stressors. Some stressors are pleasant, such as attending a party, or unpleasant, such as a bad grade. In the GAS theory, stress triggered by a pleasant stressor is called eustress; stress triggered by an unpleasant stressor is called distress. The sequence of physical responses associated with GAS (Figure 10.3S is the same for both eustress and distress and occurs in three stages:


• Alarm. The alarm stage includes the complex sequence of events brought on by the fight-or-flight reaction.

At this stage, the body is more susceptible to disease or injury because it is geared up to deal with a crisis. Someone in this phase may experience headaches, indigestion, anxiety, and disrupted sleeping and eating patterns.

• Resistance. With continued stress, the body develops a new level of homeostasis in which it is more resistant to disease and injury than normal. In this stage, a person can cope with normal life and added stress.

• Exhaustion. The first two stages of GAS require a great deal of energy. If a stressor persists, or if several

General adaptation syndrome (GAS) A pattern TERMS of stress responses consisting of three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.

Eustress Stress resulting from a pleasant stressor.

Distress Stress resulting from an unpleasant stressor.

Allostatic load The long-term negative impact of the stress response on the body.

Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) The study of the interactions among the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.

The general adaptation syndrome. During the alarm stage, a lower resistance to injury is evident. With continued stress, resistance to injury is actually enhanced. With prolonged exposure to repeated stressors, exhaustion sets in, with a return of low resistance levels seen during acute stress. stressors occur in succession, general exhaustion results. This is not the sort of exhaustion you feel after a long, busy day. Rather, it’s a life-threatening type of physiological exhaustion.

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