The Origins of Stress and Anxiety

Fight, Flight and what?

Written by Melissa Gilmore

3 min read

male hunter with animal walking from rocky landscape in the foreground to modern metropolis in the background
male hunter with animal walking from rocky landscape in the foreground to modern metropolis in the background

Stress can be defined as a physical or psychological reaction to a short-term or occasional external trigger, circumstance or demand. For example, being caught in a traffic jam on the way to work and getting frustrated and angry about the possibility of being late for your meeting.

However, anxiety is more of a feeling of fear, unease and worry that can vary between mild and severe. The trigger or source of this feeling may or may not be known, but the anxiety can result in more serious conditions and illnesses, if left untreated. An example of which, could be having a fear of going to new places. The source of this fear may not be known, or it could be based on a previous bad experience that then causes the person to worry about it happening again. If this reaction continues and escalates, it could lead to a more serious condition, such as agoraphobia, in this case. This, of course, can have a huge negative impact on everyday life.

So why do we get stressed or anxious? Stress and anxiety are natural, primitive reactions to protect ourselves, overcome challenges and survive in the short-term. Early humans used this as a fight, flight or freeze response to the perceived threats around them. Facing a predator would trigger the body to release hormones that increase heart rate and breathing, which gives the person more oxygen and strength to fight – amongst other symptoms/reactions. Conversely, upon assessment of the situation, or instinctual reaction, the same physiological response will help the person flee from the threat. Sometimes other reactions such as an upset stomach followed by the expulsion of food/waste (!), enables the person to become lighter to help them flee faster. The freeze response is believed to have developed from the need to keep still when faced with a possible threat – similar to the way some animals react when faced with a predator, so they cannot be seen, heard or chased. Our reactions can also depend on the circumstances, so a person doesn’t always have one type of response.

However, in our modern world, we no longer live in this primitive way, but we still have these responses. For example, think of a parent’s or carer’s response to threats when they are with their children: in some circumstances, they will be ready to fight and protect; in others, to flee and take them to safety; or, maybe freeze and hide to avoid the perceived threat altogether. These reactions would be at a justified level and circumstance, as the stress and anxiety can help protect us.

The problem arises, when the stress and anxiety is at excessive, inappropriate and prolonged levels, which can then cause physical, psychological and behavioural harm - instead of protecting us and helping us to survive.

Most of us know about the fight and flight response; some of us know about the freeze response, but how about the fourth? This one is called the ‘Fawn’ response. It isn’t often mentioned, as it could be seen as a personality trait, rather than a reaction. The fawn response was named by Pete Walker*, who is a trauma therapist. During his work with those suffering from PTSD and Childhood trauma, he concluded that some people would psychologically move themselves from danger/threat/conflict to a safety zone, by being what is often called a ‘people-pleaser’. This response (or trait) means that the person pushes away their own identity and needs in order to be there for others, thus reducing the possibility of danger, conflict or harm.

Walker (2003)* stated that the ‘fawn’ doesn’t develop a ‘healthy assertiveness’ which would help them form boundaries and balance. Those who successfully reduce or eliminate this fawn response, are able to reduce their stress and anxiety. This is also true of reducing the fight, flight and freeze responses, when they no longer benefit us.

There are many ways to reduce stress and anxiety, including exercise, counselling, taking time out, socialising and lots more. The way that hypnotherapy helps, is to reduce the physical responses like slowing down the racing heart, rapid breathing and tense muscles; devise a personalised treatment programme based on the client’s needs and personality; and use tools such as suggestions and visualisations, to change the subconscious mindset. Perhaps, if you get stressed or anxious, you could reflect upon which response you are using and check whether it is benefiting you and your wellbeing. If it is not, there are ways to change this.


(Updated April 2023)

*Reference: Pete Walker, ‘Co-dependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response’ 2003. MFT, [925] 283 4575