Active Responses

Lesson objective:

We learn in this section about active responses to stress and the neurological and physical processes to deal with stress factors.

So, we’ve learned that stress in any form prompts the body to adapt and adjust. The amygdala and other regions of the brain signal using the HPA axis as well as the autonomic nervous system, to mobilize an appropriate stress response.

In most cases, the stress response is eventually calmed or dampened by the “brakes” of the parasympathetic nervous system, as well as feedback from cortisol released in the HPA axis response. 

Simply, after you fight, you rest. After you run, you slow down, in response to the change in demands of the external environment. 

When the brain interprets a situation or signal as stressful or threatening, you cannot prevent your brain from signaling to your nervous system, nor can you completely prevent the function of the HPA axis.

Your body is designed to mobilize a stress response below your conscious control and awareness. It does this in an effort to make the job of survival as automatic and quick as possible. 

Where possible, it shifts functions from the rider to the elephant, freeing up that 2-5% of consciously controlled activity for advanced or more complex cognitive tasks. 

As mentioned previously, when you encounter a stressor or threat, the body adapts by preparing the mind and body to confront the situation. “Confronting” the stressful situation can mean many things, but generally, humans responses to acute stressful situations fall into three categories: 

You can fight it, challenge it head on. We call this the fight response. 


You can run, far and fast until you leave it behind. This would be the flight response.  

You can freeze, stop in your tracks hoping the stress moves on. Simply, a freeze response. 

So, we have fight, flight, and freeze. All of these reactions are normal responses to abnormal, stressful situations. They can each, in their own way, be characterized as defensive responses to stress, as each individual uses these strategies to defend against an incoming stress or threat. 

Fight and flight are active defensive responses. Whether you fight the stressor head on or run from it, it’s not really your choice. The brain and body coordinate to mobilize these responses automatically. In any case, both fight and flight responses recruit the HPA axis and the sympathetic nervous system to generate whatever actions are used to confront the situation. 


In these active responses, our nervous system signals to your airways to open. To your heart to pump. To your legs to suppress inflammation. To your digestive system to partially suspend activity. To your pupils to enlarge and take in every sight and movement around you. 

Moreover, certain cognitive functions may suspend in those moments. As your stress increases, bodily and mental energy are redirected towards survival priorities. Thoughts, feelings, and functions in the body less useful for surviving the stressor may turn down or off. 

And with that, we can take a closer look at what seems like a more passive response–freezing in the face of stress or threat.