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Fight Back or Stand Back: The Fight-or-Flight Response

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Stress and the Body’s Call to Action

For high anxiety situations, the human body has a natural defense to optimize the body and ward off anticipated attack. This alarm reaction known as the fight-or-flight response occurs in response to the threat of imminent danger and refers to a physiological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something that is, put simply, terrifying (Sterling & Frings, 2016). The fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either fight, to take on the threat, or flight, to run away to safety and avoid an encounter with the threat.

The term in itself represents the choices that our ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment, such as a wild animal. Going with the situation where the threat was a dangerous animal, the individual could either choose to fight or flee from this animal. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger. A chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help to mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances (Cherry, 2019). These same types of reactions still take place today, but in response to less threatening, low alarm events. The fight-or-flight response is now activated in everyday situations where threat is perceived, such as dodging an unexpected ball from the neighbor’s kickball game or watching a scary movie.

This physiological reaction also is very relevant today in the marketing world, as it is important for market researchers to communicate appropriate messages for specific stimuli. Being aware of the stress response of the consumer during the product or communication experience helps to determine the object’s viability. Market research companies may work with advertisers to produce a TV, magazine, or even bus-stop advertisement to ensure the right response is stimulated. By conducting market research to measure the stress response, companies receive feedback about the impact of their product to make sure it is meeting the mark.

Stress is Never Good…Or Is It?

Stress is a form of psychological or physiological arousal that drives behavior by influencing our decision-making. Although stress is mainly viewed in a negative light, it does have benefits. To paint it in a more positive light, stress can be seen as a burst of energy that advises us. Next time you are stressed out, think of these benefits to motivate you-literally!

  1. Inspires Productivity: Stress brings about an increased sense of urgency, which allows you to achieve your goals by making you more alert and focused on one topic or task (Brandon, 2016). No matter how menial the situation, stress makes you more aware of it and sharpens your decision-making to take the best course of action.

  2. Fuels More Energy: All of this extra energy can motivate you and make you work harder. If you are stressed about something, it highlights your attentiveness and dedication to the task at hand, such as a market research presentation, which shows your company that you value the outcome of your hard work (Brandon, 2016).

  3. Gets Creative Juices Flowing: Next time you make a wrong turn on the way home from work, remember that it is stress motivating you to find an alternate route. This also applies to the business world where the surge of adrenaline sharpens your decision-making and enables you to work to find the right answer to a unique problem. Stress can actually make you productive by helping you find a quick solution.

What separates “good stress” from “bad stress” is the concern or fear of threat. The fight-or-flight response can be categorized as both good and bad stress. It exists as a way to protect us from dangerous situations by making us more alert and prepared to make a decision, which would be to fight or flight. The fight-or-flight response does not always have to be activated by a major crises or catastrophe—it can actually occur as a reaction to common, petty stressors like reacting to the car in front of you stopping short. But regardless of the degree of fear of a situation, how exactly does this response work?

What Happens During the Fight-or-Flight Response?

Physiologically, fight-or-flight has a number of common effects, the majority being governed by the hypothalamus, the region of the brain tasked with activating the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s defense mechanism. When a stress response is triggered, this area of the brain activates the production of adrenaline to initiate the fight-or-flight response. After the hypothalamus is prompted by a stressor, our body undergoes three stages of stress:

  1. Alarm/Stress Response: Here, our sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones, which then stimulates the adrenal glands.

  2. Resistance: The threat continues, and now the body must activate at a higher operating level and optimize resources. The adrenal glands trigger the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, stress hormones associated with the fight-or-flight reaction to stress. Adrenaline increases heart rate and perspiration, activates the production of cortisol, constricts the blood vessels, and dilates the pupils to allow additional light into the eyes. This results in better vision of the surroundings, slows digestion, and suppresses the immune response. Both adrenaline and noradrenaline dilate the coronary arteries so that the heart pumps faster and certain blood vessels constrict, causing the blood pressure to rise. Rapid heart rate and breathing provide the body with the energy and oxygen needed to fuel a rapid response to danger.

  3. Exhaustion/Fatigue: At this stage, the body has now been faced with prolonged exposure to the threat and has just about depleted its resources (Burgess, 2017). This strains the body, resulting in a tired feeling that lowers activity levels. The stages of stress result in the inevitable behavior response, which explains why runners or spectators may jump at the sound of a gun at the start of a race.

The Mechanism and Anatomy of the Stress Response

It is crucial to explore not only the generated fear response, but also what happens on the microscale to produce this response. Specifically, what happens internally to trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Let’s dive in to get a better understanding of the body’s reactions.

Capping the two kidneys are the adrenal glands; hormones of the adrenal gland help the body deal with stress. The inner layer of this gland, the medulla, releases hormones that handle sudden stress, and the outer layer of this gland, the cortex, releases hormones to help the body handle long term stress. The adrenal medulla secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine, or adrenaline and noradrenaline respectively, the two hormones responsible for the fight or flight response (Schraer, 1993). They are secreted in response to sudden stresses, such as fear, anger, pain, or physical exertion. Epinephrine increases the rate of metabolism and the release of glucose by the liver and the rate and strength of the heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing rate, blood clotting rate, and sweating. The major hormone of the adrenal cortex is cortisol, the hormone we automatically associate with stress. Cortisol affects the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and regulates the glucose level in the blood. This enhances the availability of substances that can be used to repair tissues in stressful situations (Schraer, 1993). Whether it be walking past a growling dog or watching the “…” for a highly anticipated text message, the fight-or-flight response can occur at any point in our lives. Yet, these reactions are all dependent on how we perceive a threat. Since threats of varying levels can occur in all different types of situations, it is important to consider the magnitude of the response and how it compares to other reactions. This is where physiological markers are useful to monitor individual responses to different types of stimuli.

How Can We Measure a Stress Response?

Measuring stress response can be very beneficial for market researchers as a way to better understand if their stimulus properly communicates the intended message. There are many techniques in use to accurately assess a stress response.

Biometrics are useful indicators of a person’s psychophysiological reactions, specifically stress and attention. Analyzing changes to heart rate and heart rate variability to pinpoint the fight-or-flight response is one type of biometric measure when exploring consumer response. A study from Rowntree (2016) exposed viewers to a horror film to analyze their responses. A total of 15 fight-or-flight responses had been triggered during tense scenes, suggested by the recorded changes in heart rate, skin moisture, movement, and audible reactions during traumatic scenes. Reviewing all of the physiological reactions within the context of the research environment helps to determine the emotional response of participants, but other measures may also add some insight into why the response occurs.

Eye tracking is a great measure to complement biometrics when assessing stress response. Since eye tracking is used as a measure of visual attention, it allows researchers to analyze the duration of fixation and see where viewers focus on a stimulus. Using this measure in combination with surveys or self-reports allows marketers to understand what grabbedviewer’s attention and how the stimulus was perceived. From there, the developers can adjust the stimulus to include visual cues to best direct the consumer only to the most important content as well as identify which information is most appropriate to keep the viewer’s attention.

Biometrics, eye tracking, and traditional surveys are great for evaluating an overall experience. Yet, if you are trying to review the onset of a stressor, it may be helpful to compare it to a stressor purposefully induced. For example, the Stroop Color test induces mental stress to evaluate the participant’s selective attention response. This test acts as a mental stressor due to its ability to activate all parts of a person’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s reflexive response to stress, such as increased heart rate and dilated pupils (Boutcher, 2006). This phenomenon, referred to as the Stroop Effect, illustrates the interference in the reaction time of a task. Participants are asked to acknowledge the text color as opposed to the word written. For example, the word “red” may have a text color in blue. When the name of a color is printed in a different color, a setback occurs as a person tries to process the word’s color. This causes stress, as indicated by the participants’ elevated heart rate and epinephrine levels (Boutcher, 2006). This type of test is helpful and important for marketers looking to understand the driving forces that create the underlying emotions that influence consumer behavior. A 2004 study (Warrenburg) utilized the Stroop test to first induce stress in participants and then used relaxing fragrances to reduce that stress, revealing that relaxing, aromatic fragrances also serve as stress-relievers in that they produce a muscle-relaxing effect.

Proceed With Caution… Understanding the Stress Response for Market Research

The fight-or-flight response can be triggered by both threatening and non-threatening events. This stress response is essential in that it primes the body to be better prepared when it must perform under pressure for any event. Something that does not pose any imminent danger, such as a dance recital, can cause a fight-or-flight reaction even if the event in itself is innocent. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat, enabling you to perform optimally.

Although uncommon, in such cases where a threat is dangerous, the fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response occurs to help you survive the danger. Similarly, the body responds to everyday threats to ensure safety. Understanding the effects of this stress response can help improve advertisements, product designs, or communications to get across their message. For example, a campaign against drunk driving can create a context where anticipation creates a stress response to make an impact on viewers. By conducting market research to get a better understanding of consumers’ responses, the messages may be better received when the advertisement is launched.

Fear-Based Advertising

Emotions are one of the many things that drive behavior. Fear-based advertisements use the stress response as a tool to evoke a certain emotion in the target audience. Based on how information is shared or displayed, it can discourage or encourage a certain behavior using fearful images, messages, or music. Fear appeals, thus “shock” advertising, which causes viewers to feel tense (Algie & Rossiter, 2008). Fear-based advertising has been seen in smoking, drug, and even sunscreen ads. A study by Leshner, Clayton, Bolls, and Bhandari (2017) has shown that using deceptive and disgusting messages in smoking ads can cause viewers to exhibit an array of defensive responses. For example, to encourage people to apply sunscreen before a day at the beach, an advertisement may include images of sunburns, wrinkles, sun blisters, or cuts. It gives a narrative of what could happen if you do or do not use the product. This marketing strategy has proven effective, as consumers prefer stories and images over statistics (Gorbatch, 2019). Having an in-depth understanding of the target audience, through surveys, interviews, or other forms of market research, allows marketers to better develop content to successfully trigger the viewer’s fight-or-flight response within the appropriate context (Crolley, 2020).

Takeaway Message

Exploring the fight-or-flight response and how it impacts our decisions reveals what motivates us to pursue certain courses of action. Understanding the fight-or-flight response within different contexts gives market researchers the opportunity to understand why consumers respond the way they do, and in turn, improve the stimuli to meet the consumer expectation. Hopefully by reviewing one of the body’s ways to respond to stress, the fight-or-flight response acts as a testament to the amazing machine we call the human body.


Algie, J., & Rossiter, J. R. (2008). Fear Patterns: A New Approach to Designing Road Safety Advertisements. Retrieved January 25, 2021, from

Brandon, J. (2016, June 07). 4 Ways Stress Can Motivate You (and 1 Way It Can’t). Retrieved January 19, 2021, from

Boutcher, Y. N., & Boutcher, S. (2006, November). Cardiovascular response to Stroop: Effect of verbal response and task difficulty. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.04.005

Burgess, L. (2017, November 28). General adaptation syndrome: What it is, stages, and examples. Retrieved January 25, 2021, from

Cherry, K. (2019, August 18). The Fight-or-Flight Response Prepares Your Body to Take Action. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from

Crolley, F. (2020, June 29). Does Fear Sell? Pros & Cons of Using Fear-Based Marketing for Your MSP Business. Retrieved January 21, 2021, from

Gorbatch, A. (2019, March 05). Does fear-based marketing work? Retrieved January 19, 2021, from

Leshner, G., Clayton, R. B., Bolls, P. D., & Bhandari, M. (2018). Deceived, disgusted, and defensive: motivated processing of anti-tobacco advertisements. Health Communication, 33(10), 1223–1232.

Schraer, W. D. (1993). Biology: The study of life. Needham, MA: Prentice Hall.

Sterling, C. M., & Frings, D. (2016). Psychology squared: 100 concepts you should know. London: Apple Press.

Warrenburg, S.. (2004, May 26). Using fragrance as a stress-relief agent. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 26. 169-169.

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