Alarm Reaction, Resistance, & Exhaustion

Who remembers Grade 12 biology – Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome?

It goes: In response to stress we produce three stages of reaction — Alarm, Resistance, Exhaustion.

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Stress – anything real or imagined that is stressful, perceived as threatening, or actually threatening to survival.

Alarm – the body’s response to stress in the form of adrenaline “fight or flight.” As in “get me away from this saber tooth tiger!…NOW!” Heart races, blood pumps, and we get the heck out of there!

Resistance – stress is not going away. Stress is here to stay. Real or imagined, my life is in danger. The purpose of resistance is to weather the storm, overcome the famine, or generally keep us alive so that we can endure. Examples of long term stress from everyday life include death of a loved one, divorce, losing a job, and moving.

Exhaustion – I can no longer maintain. My body resources are depleted. The stress is more than I can handle and I succumb to exhaustion. Death.

The current threat

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Okay, now that we reviewed the biology of stress and adaptation, I can talk about the CORONAVIRUS.  

Two months ago, practically none of us knew what a coronavirus was. Now we are deeply impacted by the mere mention of the word. If I am not afraid of contracting coronavirus, I am deeply aware of my impact on others as a carrier.

We know that people without symptoms can transmit the virus to others who have weakened immune systems — a situation that is potentially life threatening.

I don’t know about you, but that is scary enough to keep me at home!

The long term threat

Worse than a threat that will go away is a threat that will stick around for an indefinite period of time. Each time I turn on the news, I get daily refreshers about the deadly nature of this virus. So if I forgot in my pleasant night sleep that there was a deadly threat, looming in the neighbourhood, stalking my family and friends, I am reminded with 24-hours-a-day breaking news.

Red alert! All hands to battle stations!

So the first few days and weeks of this pandemic were alarmist. I found myself obsessively washing my hands, investigating the news breaks, getting as much information as I possibly could, and doing things like stocking up on toilet paper and other essential supplies.

If knowledge is power, I believe that we have an opportunity to navigate this current crisis without undue stress. There has never been a better time to become informed about the way that stress impacts our immune system.

Supporting our most vulnerable

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In a previous article on public health, I wrote that our most vulnerable members of society are impacted more during these sorts of emergencies. Now we are hearing that a disproportionate number of African Americans are impacted by COVID-19, as are those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

How we recover from COVID-19 will teach us how we are as a society, and it will be interesting to look back once we are past this pandemic, who were most impacted and why.

Perhaps after we recover, we will discover — there is a real need to support the people who are most vulnerable to infectious disease. These are the same people who are disproportionately suffering from chronic illness, from food insecurity, poverty, homelessness, and racism. Who feels under constant threat to their survival? People living “in survival” – paycheque-to-paycheque, in precarious work, with unsafe or unhealthy housing, in abusive relationships, and in inner-city neighbourhoods.

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Long term stress weakens the immune response

Stress, real or imagined, will weaken our immune system when there is no end in sight.

According to an article in Psychology Today, “Ongoing stress makes us susceptible to illness and disease because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system, which then releases an array of hormones that not only gets us ready for emergency situations but severely depresses our immunity at the same time” (1).

Whether we are worried constantly about the threat of pandemic reaching our lives, or are faced with other life threatening situations, the ongoing nature of stress impacts us in ways that our biology registers.

What about money?

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Another chronic stress that Canadian’s especially face is the looming debt to income ratio.  According to Statistic Canada, Canadians spend $1.77 for every $1 of disposable income. In contrast in the 1980’s, Canadians spend only $0.66 of disposable income per $1.

As a whole, we are saving less, spending more, and going further into debt. We are no longer saving for our future as we once did.

Some of this debt is okay, because it is invested in our homes, or our education. A great proportion is consumer debt — credit cards, line of credits, car loans, and the dreaded pay-day loan. For those who borrow to cover their basic living expenses, this is an unsustainable stressful situation that will only go away with more money, or less spending, and sometimes bankruptcy.

How about some hope!

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What I’ve learned from this pandemic is to be cautious of how much time I spend watching the news. I set a limit — to learn what I can in a short period of time so that I can stay updated without feeling stressed.

Sometimes I even take a few days off from the news, just to remind myself that life is happening despite the worldly reports.

Priorities have changed for me. I am making an effort to walk more, garden, and I’m talking to my family more than I normally do. I’m also waking up earlier, and focusing on projects that are important to me.

My health is higher on the list too, as I consider what foods to buy or what time to go to bed. Work opportunities look different, and I am contemplating what job security looks like and the consequence of precarious work on my life.

Things to be grateful for

Fear is one of the obstacles to health. Being constantly afraid that there is danger sets up a vulnerability which does not support well being. Some things we have no control over. These are stressful times, and many are feeling the stress far more, or the impact of social isolation much worse than others.

In contrast, I believe that gratitude is the cure — not for the infectious coronavirus, but for the drastic measures disrupting all of our lives. I have gratitude for my health, for the support of our wonderful health care staff, and for a home that supports me to be present with myself. I practice gratitude every day, thinking of something that I can appreciate about myself and my life.


1. Goliszek, Andrew, Ph. D. (2014).  How Stress Affects the Immune System (article). Psychology Today.  Retrieved from:

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