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The 5 phases of stress (and how to fight them)

The 5 phases of stress (and how to fight them)

May 18, 2024

The lifestyle of Western societies has caused stress to become a frequent phenomenon today. This condition can occur acutely, in periods where we have, for example, an excess of work.

However, when stress is prolonged over time, chronic stress (burnout or burn syndrome in the workplace) appears, which is even more harmful and causes negative consequences both physically and psychologically.

Stress can be classified as positive stress (eustress) or negative stress (distress). In this article we will talk about the phases of habitual stress , which is considered negative.

  • Related article: "Types of stress and its triggers"

What causes this problem?

Stress does not have a single cause, but it is a multi-causal and complex phenomenon in which both internal factors and the expectations of the person or the way the person has to interpret and deal with the negative situations that occur around them come into play; and external factors (for example, not having a job, living a situation of economic uncertainty or being harassed at school).


Phenomena that cause stress are called stressors.

Work stress: a problem that affects many people

In recent decades, many investigations have been carried out to try to understand a form of stress that affects a large part of the population: work stress.

The data obtained through several studies show that the cause of this type of stress it's not just workplace factors , but also they influence several that are foreign to this one, like the economic crisis, the cultural expectations, the bad relation of the worker with his pair, etc.

In addition, recent research claims that stress occurs at several levels, not only individual but also collective . Individuals share emotional experiences, and both these emotional experiences and experiences of stress can be contagious.


  • You can learn more about this interesting topic in this article: "8 essential tips to reduce work stress"

Its consequences

The negative consequences of distress are numerous; however, it is important highlight the differences between acute stress and chronic stress .

The first occurs at specific moments and temporarily, as a response to the experimentation of one or several highly stressful events. For example, due to an exam that has to be prepared in a week when the person has had the whole year to do it. As a result, the individual may suffer from anxiety, muscle aches, headaches, exhaustion, gastric problems, tachycardia, etc. This type of stress is less severe, and over time the body returns to normal.

But when stress is chronic the consequences are even more harmful , causing physical, emotional or mental exhaustion and causing general damage to the health of the affected person, especially through the weakening of the immune system.


In addition, chronic stress produces changes in self-esteem. Imagine a person who is unemployed for several years and has economic problems; When the stressor appears again and again in a repeated way, the person can reach a serious situation of demoralization.

Some consequences of long-term negative stress are:

  • Emotional fatigue
  • Diseases of the digestive system, skin diseases and heart problems.
  • Feelings of insecurity and the feeling of learned helplessness.
  • Depersonalization, irritability and loss of motivation.
  • Insomnia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Abuse of alcohol or substances.

Stress phases: what are they?

A pioneer in stress research Hans Selye was , that carried out its studies in the decade of the 50. At present, its theory continues having of great importance at the time of analyzing the evolution of this psychological and physiological phenomenon.

According to this author, the stress response consists of three distinct phases:

1. Reaction alarm

Any physical, emotional or mental alteration consequence of having detected a threat or have crossed with a stressor causes an instantaneous reaction aimed at combating this situation. This response is called a "fight or flight" reaction, and consists of the release of adrenaline to different parts of the body: the blood vessels, the heart, the stomach, the lungs, the eyes, the muscles ...

In the face of a stressful stimulus, this hormone provides a rapid impulse for our energy to increase so that we can escape danger.We notice the effects because breathing, pulse and heart rate are accelerated so that the muscles respond more quickly. The pupils dilate, the blood circulates at a higher speed and this moves away from the digestive system to prevent vomiting.

In addition to these physiological functions, adrenaline also affects the brain, which is put into alert mode: attention is narrowed and we are more sensitive to any stimulus. Adrenaline, in addition to being a hormone, is also a neurotransmitter that acts on our brain.

In this phase, the level of cortisol also increases and, as a consequence, the amount of blood sugar increases and the immune system weakens to save energy and help the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. The release of these hormones can be beneficial for the organism in some cases, but in the long term the consequences are extremely harmful.

  • Related article: "Cortisol: the hormone that generates stress"

2. Resistance

In the resistance stage, the body tries to adapt thanks to a process called homeostasis, which leads to a recovery and repair phase. The cortisol and adrenaline return to their normal levels, but the resources are exhausted and the defenses and the energy necessary for the previous phase of stress diminish. The body has over exerted and now must rest .

The problem arises when the stressful situation or stimulus does not cease or reappears continuously, because fatigue, sleep problems and general malaise can be manifested. As a result, the person becomes very irritable and has a great difficulty concentrating or being productive in their daily lives.

3. Exhaustion

When stress lasts a long time, the body ends up depleting resources and gradually loses the adaptive capacity of the previous phases. The body weakens and, after some time in this harmful situation, the organism can succumb to the disease , either a viral or bacterial infection, because their defenses have been exhausted. All the negative effects of chronic stress mentioned above are manifested in this stage.

If you want to delve into chronic stress, you may be interested in the following articles:

  • "Chronic stress: causes, symptoms and treatment"
  • "Burnout (burning syndrome): how to detect it and take action"

The five phases of negative stress

Research has continued over the years, and recently, the Canadian Stress Institute, after studying thousands of people with negative stress, affirms that there are five phases of distress :

Phase 1: Physical and / or mental fatigue

In this phase the person experiences the first consequences of stress: a loss of vitality and the appearance of fatigue , fatigue, drowsiness, demotivation ... For example, when someone comes home from work in this phase, all he wants is to disconnect and lie down on the couch.

Phase 2: Interpersonal problems and emotional disengagement

In this phase the person he is irritable and in a bad mood , and experience problems in their personal relationships, whether with family, friends or co-workers. This creates a vicious circle, since the stressed person worsens the situation even more. The individual prefers to be alone and to close in on himself.

Phase 3: Emotional turbulence

In this phase the person experience a pronounced emotional imbalance . The previous phase has destabilized the close interpersonal relationships, creating a more tense close environment. As a result, the individual begins to doubt himself and is emotionally affected.

Phase 4: Chronic physical ailments

Stress is becoming chronic and not only the mind (brain) is affected, but the body as a whole. Continued tension can cause muscle pain in the cervical, shoulders and lumbar areas, in addition to headaches. In this phase you can take measures such as playing sports or receiving massages, but if the real stressful problem is not treated, neither the stress nor the ailments will disappear.

Phase 5: Diseases related to stress

After a state of chronic exhaustion and depersonalization the person begins to manifest serious physical damage. Colds, colds, ulcers, colitis, are some examples that, although they have not been produced directly by this phenomenon, are cause of the weakening of the immune system .

The longer the stressful situation lasts, the worse the consequences will be, as hypertension, cardiovascular problems and even heart attack can appear.

How to fight stress

Combat stress is not an easy task, since, sometimes, we can not control external stressors. For example, if the stressful situation is the lack of employment and the economic crisis or if our partner leaves us or makes our lives impossible.

Without a doubt, psychological therapy becomes a good alternative to alleviate this situation , because it helps to develop a series of strategies and skills so that we can control the experiences and consequences that stress produces and thus reduce the discomfort in a significant way. In addition, psychotherapy is also useful to help us correct the way we interpret stressful events.

Stress theorists claim that stress occurs when the person does not have sufficient resources to face the situation . That is, the source of stress is in the mismatch between existing demands and the control that the person has to meet these demands. When it is not possible to eliminate the stimulus or stressful situation, providing the person with sufficient resources is a good alternative to combat stress.

Scientific studies also claim that the social environment can not only trigger the stressful situation , but can act as a buffer, reducing negative effects, and even as a way to prevent and reduce stress. At work, for example, different strategies can be used so that the relationship with colleagues is positive and, in this way, the negative impact of stress is reduced or even disappears.

In less severe cases, a series of measures can be taken to reduce stress: Correctly managing time, practicing Mindfulness or exercising are some alternatives. If you want to know some tips to reduce stress, you can read this article: "10 essential tips to reduce stress".

Bibliographic references:

  • Brugnera, A; Zarbo, C; Adorni, R; Tasca, Giorgio A.; Rabboni, M and Bondi, E et al. (2017): Cortical and cardiovascular responses to acute stressors and their relations with psychological distress. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 114, pp.38-46.
  • Peiró, J. M. (1993). Triggers of Work Stress. Madrid: Eudema.
  • Persson, P. B. and Zakrisson, A. (2016): Stress. Acta Physiologica, 216 (2), pp. pp.149 - 152.
  • Selye, H. (1975). Stress and distress. Comprehensive Therapy, 1, pp. 9 - 13.
  • Soria, B., Caballer, A. & Peiró, J.M. (2011). Consequences of job insecurity. The modulating role of organizational support from a multilevel perspective. Psicothema, 23 (3), pp. 394 - 400.
  • Zach, S., & Raviv, S. (2007). The benefits of a graduate training program for security officers on physical performance in stressful situations. International Journal of Stress Management, 14, pp. 350-369.

Three stages of stress response - Intro to Psychology (May 2024).


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