In humans and rodents, the perception of control during stressful events has lasting behavioral consequences. These consequences are apparent even in situations that are distinct from the stress context, but how the brain links prior stressful experience to subsequent behaviors remains poorly understood. By assessing innate defensive behavior in a looming-shadow task, we show that the initiation of an escape response is preceded by an increase in the activity of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus (CRHPVN neurons). This anticipatory increase is sensitive to stressful stimuli that have high or low levels of outcome control. Specifically, experimental stress with high outcome control increases CRHPVN neuron anticipatory activity, which increases escape behavior in an unrelated context. By contrast, stress with no outcome control prevents the emergence of this anticipatory activity and decreases subsequent escape behavior. These observations indicate that CRHPVN neurons encode stress controllability and contribute to shifts between active and passive innate defensive strategies.