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The Stages of Stress and the Body's Reactions

Updated on February 13, 2013
Stress, if left untreated, can lead to serious and sometimes fatal conditions.
Stress, if left untreated, can lead to serious and sometimes fatal conditions. | Source

By Joan Whetzel

When under stress, a person may pass through three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. However, that person may not necessarily experience all three stages of stress. It all depends on what triggered the stress event.

is the stage of stress everyone experiences when faced with danger. When this stage of stress is a primary stress, it usually occurs in response to an actual event - an accident, a home invasion robbery, a bear in your backyard. Alarm as a secondary stress occurs when a person is facing an expected stressful event in the near future, like a final exam. With alarm, the nervous system sends an emergency signal to the brain which prompts each of the body's organs and muscles to coordinate their efforts for a "fight of flight" response. The arms and legs are provided a great deal more energy so they may work faster (for flight) or may have more strength (for fighting). Most of the body's organs (kidneys, digestion, liver function) slow down considerably since they are not needed for this process. This frees up the blood and nerves to concentrate their functions where they are needed - in the brain and the muscles.

Body reactions in this stage of stress include rapid breathing, sweating, increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, and indigestion. The sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which flows to the muscles to provide them with the energy needed for the "fight or flight" reaction. For short-term Alarm Stress reactions, the body recovers quickly without any harm to any of the organs. But when the Alarm state of stress is allowed to continue for over a long period, it can seriously affect the organs that have been forced to slow down, and can lead to problems with resistance to illness and disease.


When stress in the alarm stage goes unrelieved, it progresses on to the second stage of stress, known as resistance. In this stage, the person experiences a significant decrease in their energy levels, even though he or she may still feel the need to continue fighting the danger. The person begins to feel exasperated, irritated, and impatient. Sleep schedules are seriously affected. Stored sugars and fats are released into the bloodstream to provide the body with more energy, which it isn't getting from food, because the digestion is still slowed down from the stress.

The body's reaction to this level of stress includes: exhaustion, weariness, anxiousness, fatigue, sleep problems, and forgetfulness. Smoking and drinking are frequently used to help combat the stress. Because the body is continuing its efforts to cope with the stress, it becomes rundown, making it more susceptible to colds and the flu. Physical and mental changes become clearly visible at this point.

If the person's stress continues beyond the resistance stage, it develops into the exhaustion stage of stress. The body is now completed drained of energy and feels extreme tiredness. The person loses his or her drive to work or to live his or her life. Simply getting out of bed in the morning can be an ordeal.

Long periods of unending stress can even succumb to viral or bacterial infections. Chronic stress can prematurely age the skin, depleting it of water, oxygen, vitamin C, and increased hormone levels, histamines, and sebum levels. These skin problems can manifest as bumps, excessive oil, acne breakouts, rosacea, and other skin conditions. After battling the stress for days, or even weeks, the body's entire mental and physical systems shut down, leading to loss of mental balance (even to the point of suicide) and physical complications like heart disease, high blood pressure, and stomach ulcers.

The exhaustion stage of stress is divided into two phases - the initial phase and the burnout phase:

  • · The Initial Phase of Exhaustion: In this phase, the stress continues and, due to the lack of any remedies, the person loses the ability to concentrate or to work efficiently.
  • · The Burnout Phase of Exhaustion:When the person reaches this phase, he or she has reached complete exhaustion and the body is depleted of all of its energy stores, which leads to a total physical, psychological, and emotional collapse. This is a serious condition requiring immediate medical attention.

It is helpful to understand the stages of stress, and how the body reacts in each of these stages. However, the information provided here is not meant to substitute for medical help. So, if you feel your stress levels are progressing and you stress relief, do not allow it to progress too far, for an extended period of time. The damage stress can cause the body can be profound, and may be irreversible. Seek help as soon as you realize that you cannot cope with the stress or the events causing the stress.


Gan, Jacob, PhD. The Stages of Stress.

About Stress Management. Stages of Stress.

Kaminsky, Ben. Sharecare. What Are the Stages of

Health Mad. The Three Stages of Stress.


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    • Janellegems profile image

      Janellegems 4 years ago from United States

      Thanks for an informative hub about the stages of stress. This is very helpful in understanding how stress affects the body,