Wild animals frequently encounter life-threatening situations, triggering their fight, flight or freeze responses. Unlike humans, who often carry the burden of stress and trauma long after a stressful event has passed, wild animals seem to recover relatively quickly. What insights can we glean from the animal kingdom to help us manage our own stress and mitigate the potential for long-lasting trauma?

How Wild Animals Downregulate Stress

When it comes to stress management, animals in the wild offer valuable lessons. From gazelles to birds and primates, animals have developed a set of behaviors that help them rapidly downregulate their stress responses. Here’s how they do it:

  1. Physical Release: Animals shake, stretch, or move vigorously after a stressful event, possibly as a way to release nervous energy. Studies in ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior, have observed these physical movements as a common post-stress activity among various species.
  2. Immediate Return to Routine: Animals usually resume their normal activities, like foraging or grooming, soon after a stressful situation. This behavior is thought to help re-establish a sense of normalcy and security, acting as a natural stress reliever.
  3. Social Support: Animals, especially those living in groups, often seek physical contact and companionship to soothe their nervous systems. Research in animal behavior shows that social bonding can play a critical role in stress regulation for many species.

Why Wild Animals May Not Retain Trauma

Although humans and wild animals share similar biological mechanisms for coping with stress, undomesticated creatures seem to have a resilience that often prevents the accumulation of traumatic stress. A number of factors contribute to this phenomenon, and understanding them can provide valuable insights into human psychology and mental well-being.

  1. Lack of Cognitive Rumination: Animals do not have the complex cognitive abilities that humans possess, which enable us to dwell, replay, and ruminate on stressful or traumatic events. Studies in psychology, such as those examining Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), indicate that cognitive rumination is a significant factor in the development and perpetuation of trauma. Because animals lack this cognitive framework, they are less likely to experience the lingering effects of trauma.
  2. Living in the Present: Wild animals are often guided more by instinct and immediate sensory experiences than by memory or future planning. The absence of prolonged reflection on past events or future worries contributes to their ability to move on quickly after stress. Research on mindfulness practices supports the idea that focusing on the present moment can significantly reduce stress and improve mental well-being, aligning with what seems to occur naturally in wild animals.
  3. Biological Reset Mechanisms: After a stressful encounter, many animals engage in behaviors that seem to ‘reset’ their nervous systems, such as shaking, grooming, or physical play. These actions may serve as biological mechanisms to release accumulated stress hormones like cortisol, enabling a quicker return to baseline stress levels. Studies in animal physiology have begun to explore these resetting behaviors and their potential biochemical effects.
  4. Survival Imperative: In the wild, dwelling on past events could be detrimental to an animal’s survival. Quick recovery allows them to remain alert and responsive to new threats. This survival imperative to move on from stress quickly could be supported by evolutionary biology, as traits that enhance survival are more likely to be passed on to subsequent generations.
  5. Social Structures and Hierarchies: Many wild animals live in structured social groups that may provide natural mechanisms for stress regulation. Group grooming, communal nesting, and other social behaviors can offer comfort and security. Studies in ethology indicate that social bonding and hierarchical structures can significantly support stress regulation within animal communities.

The Case of Domesticated Animals and Trauma

While wild animals offer a model of stress resilience, it’s crucial to note that domesticated animals, like dogs or cats, can and do experience trauma, much like humans. Unlike their wild counterparts, domestic animals live in environments that humans often control, and they can be subject to ongoing stress or abuse that leaves lasting impacts.

  1. Controlled Environments: Unlike wild animals who can escape threats and resume normal behaviors, domesticated animals are often confined to specific spaces, reducing their ability to regulate stress naturally.
  2. Human-Induced Stress: Domestic animals can experience chronic stress or abuse at the hands of humans. Studies on canine behavior show that dogs exposed to abusive environments display trauma symptoms such as heightened aggression, anxiety, and fearfulness.
  3. Social Isolation: Domesticated animals might not have the social structures that wild animals rely on for stress relief. Research indicates that social isolation can exacerbate stress and lead to behavioral issues in pets.
  4. Complex Emotional Lives: While they may not have the cognitive complexity of humans, many domesticated animals do have rich emotional lives, and some research suggests they can form memories associated with emotional experiences, contributing to lasting trauma.
  5. Veterinary Studies: Veterinary behavioral studies have supported the idea that domestic animals can suffer from stress disorders similar to human PTSD. Treatments like medication and behavioral therapy are often recommended for such pets, confirming that domesticated animals can indeed experience trauma that requires professional intervention.

Lessons Humans Can Learn

The animal kingdom offers invaluable insights that can teach us about managing stress and avoiding the pitfalls of chronic tension and trauma. By adopting some animal behaviors, humans might improve their ability to cope with stressful situations:

  1. Physical Exercise: Like animals, we can use physical exercise to help release pent-up nervous energy. Research in exercise science shows that regular physical activity can effectively reduce stress levels.
  2. Mindfulness and Presence: Practicing mindfulness techniques can help us focus on the present, which is particularly useful for stress management. Multiple studies support the efficacy of mindfulness-based stress reduction.
  3. Social Connection: Human relationships can serve a similar function as animal groups do in helping to downregulate stress. According to numerous psychological studies, social support has proven to be a key factor in managing stress.
  4. Self-care Routines: Establishing a routine can help humans re-establish a sense of normalcy after stress, similar to animals resuming their regular activities. Routines are often recommended in stress management programs.
  5. Professional Help: Humans can seek professional therapies like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, all of which are designed to help process and overcome traumatic events. These therapies are backed by extensive scientific research.


Although humans and wild animals differ greatly in their cognitive abilities and social structures, we can still glean significant insights from how animals manage stress. By incorporating physical movement, mindfulness practices, social support, self-care routines, and seeking professional help when necessary, we may better downregulate our stress responses and reduce the risk of enduring trauma.

Written by : Brad Hook

Brad Hook is a writer, speaker and entrepreneur. He helps organizations build resilience and align with core values through inspiring workshops and a powerful suite of digital tools.

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