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How do our stress responses show up in our relationships?

Stress responses (also called trauma responses) are the immediate reactions that occur when we are triggered. Stress responses are the body’s way of keeping us safe from actual (or perceived) dangers and threats.

The threatening stimuli trigger the amygdala (responsible for fear), which notifies the hypothalamus (responsible for coordinating brain messaging), alerting our automatic nervous system, and causing a reaction. Stress responses are automatic, meaning they can be difficult to control.

There are four stress responses:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fawn

Stress responses can be especially evident and problematic with individuals experiencing:

  • PTSD
  • Acute stress
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Childhood trauma
  • Heightened stress


The flight response shows up as an attempt to protect yourself when feeling scared or threatened by “fleeing” or removing yourself from a stressful situation.

For example, someone walking down the street and seeing an unknown dog whose flight response was triggered may choose to walk down a different street to protect themselves.

Other forms of flight responses include:

  • Walking out of rooms and spaces
  • Avoiding conflict or tough conversations
  • Overworking or focusing on work as a distraction


The freeze response is categorized as individuals who may try to protect themselves when feeling scared or threatened by shutting down or self-preserving.

For example, someone who is receiving critical feedback at work, and whose freeze response was triggered, may shutdown as a way to protect themselves.

Other forms of freeze responses include:

  • Feeling immobilized
  • Checking out of a conversation
  • Falling asleep
  • Disassociating


The fawn response is categorized as individuals who may try to protect themselves when feeling scared or threatened by trying to “keep the peace.”

For example, someone who is conflict avoidant, and whose fawn response was triggered, may try to appease others to protect themselves.

Other forms of fawn responses include:

  • Over explaining ourselves
  • Over extending ourselves
  • Prioritizing the needs of others
  • Being a “giver”

Stress responses can present themselves in relationships in various ways:


  • Arguing or yelling
  • Scolding or reprimanding
  • Getting overly defensive
  • Becoming overly critical of partner(s)


  • Shutting down or stonewalling
  • Checking out of a conversation or ending one
  • Experiencing detachment


  • Ending relationships early
  • Walking out in the middle of conflict
  • Blocking people to avoid conflict
  • Staying busy to distract from conflict


  • Engaging in people pleasing behaviors
  • Over apologizing or agreeing just to end conflict
  • Conceding or taking on too much (or all blame)

Strategies to Manage Stress Responses

Here are some tips to practice when feeling triggered:

  • Identify the behavior(s) as a stress response
  • Reassure yourself that no threat is present
  • Practice relaxation and self-soothing techniques to calm your body, such as mindful breathing, grounding exercises and distress tolerance.

Continuous meditation, physical activity, boundaries, and other ways to reduce and relieve stress are effective ways to manage stress responses.

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.