Exploring the Alarm Stage of General Adaptation Syndrome

Lauren Martin, MS, CNS

General Adaptation Syndrome is a stress model developed by Dr. Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist. It is divided into three stages: alarm, where the body reacts to the fight or flight response, resistance, where the body attempts to return to normal, and exhaustion, where tissues in the body become susceptible to dysfunction. This article focuses on the initial reaction to stress that occurs during the earliest stage - the alarm stage.

An Introduction to General Adaptation Syndrome

Dr. Selye believed the General Adaptation Syndrome to be the sum of all non-specific, systemic reactions of the body, which ensure upon long continued exposure to stress.1 Dr. Selye found stress different than other physiological responses to the body because it is a result of both eustress (positive stressors such as marriage, moving, changing jobs, and making new friends) and distress (negative stressors such as a result of frustrating, traumatic, and unpleasant situations that induce emotions of fear, anger, and shock.) 2,3 Stressors were categorized as physical or emotional agents that trigger a physiological response to stress.

Alarm Stage of General Adaptation Syndrome 

The Alarm Stage

Dr. Selye describes the alarm stage as the sum of all non-specific systemic phenomena elicited by sudden exposure to stimuli to which the organism is quantitatively or qualitatively not adapted.1 The alarm stage in general adaptation syndrome is the body’s way of responding to an immediate threat or challenge and can be broken down into two phases: shock phase and counter shock phase.2 

In the shock phase, the body experiences a drop in its resistance to the stressor leading to the release of adrenaline, an increase in heart rate, and a decrease in muscle tone, body temperature, and blood sugar.1 In the counter shock phase, the body reverses most of the physiological signs of the shock phase, leading to an increase in blood volume, blood sugar, and temperature.1 These phases can last anywhere from a few minutes to 24 hours depending on the intensity of the stressor.1

Alarm Stage Defensive Mechanisms

As the body goes through the phases of the alarm stage, defensive mechanisms are activated through the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis) to fight against the stressors. The hypothalamus activates adrenal functions and prepares the body for fight or flight by increasing heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, heart, and brain.3 Common changes associated with the alarm stage include heart palpitations, shallow breathing, muscle tension in lower back and neck, nausea, anxiety, dizziness, sweating, and numbness of the limbs.2 Continued exposure to stressors cause the body to transition from the alarm stage to the resistance stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome.

As it is understood, the body’s reaction to stress varies from individual to individual. It is the job of healthcare practitioners to assess patient’s stressors and identify symptoms associated with each stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome. The HPA Axis Optimization Program is designed to help you with this process by identifying stressors and ways of coping with them to improve overall health.*


  1. Selye H et al. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 1946;6(2):117-230.
  2. Von Onciul J et al. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 1996;313(7059):745.
  3. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health. 2006;21(2):89-97.