Survival Mechanisms and fears

The phenomenon of anxiety represents but one of many separate but interrelated “strategies” for dealing with threat and thus should be analyzed within the total framework of an organism’s responses to danger. In the broadest sense, these responses include not only those patterns generally associated with anxiety but also the class of hostile behaviors associated with anger. W. B. Cannon (1929) formulated the well-known paradigm of the “fight-flight reaction” to designate the characteristic physiological patterns of response to threat. 

The individual, however is  equipped with a much broader range of specific protective mechanisms, each designed to deal with specific dangers. The automatic responses in clude protecting against the entry of noxious substances or ejecting them, defending against an external blow, inhibiting one’s own actions, fainting, and reaching to others for help. A more complete term for the survival strategies would be the “fight-flight-freeze-faint reaction.” Because these wide-ranging behaviours are primitive (in the sense that they may be ob served in other primates) and involuntary, occur as if by reflex, and appear to be a basic line of defense against danger, I have labeled them “primal reactions.”


One class of automatic reactions consists of discrete reflexes designed to ward off or eject potentially harmful agents. These reflexes include eye blink; gagging, coughing, bronchospasm; vomiting and diarrhea. A more complex set of reflexive behaviours is designed to defend against the possi bility of trauma to the body as a whole. We are exposed to a variety of threats, such as being struck by inanimate objects (falling debris, missiles, and so on) and attacked by living creatures. The response to the threat of being hit by a moving object includes such actions as ducking, dodging, flinching, retracting, and stiffening. 


The most general external physical “attacks” that we encounter in everyday life actually occur in a medical or dental setting and often elicit maladaptive defensive behavior. Thus, procedures such as palpation of the abdomen generally produce an automatic tightening of the abdominal muscles. Similarly, dental work may elicit stiffening of the jaws or gagging. Many people show a curious response to injections and especially to procedures involving withdrawing blood: they experience a pronounced drop in blood pressure, profuse sweating, and faintness. This response, markedly present in blood phobias, can perhaps best be understood as an archaic mechanism designed to minimize blood loss (and possibly reduce mobility) when a person is subjected to a penetrating, unavoidable attack.

Other automatic protective reactions operate to curtail a person’s progress into a danger zone. As pointed out previously, a person may automatically recoil or stiffen when he perceives himself to be at the edge of a cliff. In a related way, he will automatically grasp a stationary object if he senses

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