Most people spend their lives avoiding things that scare them but the key to self-protection might be to trust your fear instinct.
Fear is a natural response to physical and emotional danger, based on an evolutionary survival mechanism. The physical response, known as “fight or flight,” includes sweating, increased heart rate, and high adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert. The emotional response in our brain involves some of the same chemical reactions as happiness and excitement. This is why some enjoy fear in certain circumstances (like scary movies) or are adrenaline seekers who crave a sense of danger (like jumping from a plane), while others avoid fear-inducing situations at all costs.
In The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, author Gavin de Becker argues being scared of being scared actually makes us less safe. Drawing upon his experience as a high-stakes security specialist, de Becker explains we all have a gut sense of when we are in danger and paying closer attention to our intuitions can help protect us. Here’s de Becker on Oprah with an example:
Pay attention when your spidey sense tells you something is wrong.
It’s important to understand that de Becker isn’t asking us to be hypervigilant to potential risks, living in permanent fear. If you’re always scared, your intuition won’t be triggered when there is something genuine to fear. As de Becker writes, “if one feels fear of all people all the time, there is no signal reserved for the times when it’s really needed.”
De Becker also reminds us that danger usually comes from unexpected situations and not what we are worrying about. Fixating on specific fears makes us less perceptive to other issues. In his words, “we are far more open to signals when we don’t focus on the expectation of specific signals.”
His repeated use of the concept of signals is invoking a common paradigm in digital communications called signal-to-noise ratio. When there are too many false fears (i.e., noise) you won’t detect the real threats (i.e., signal). Said another way, you’re safer if you stay calm than if you’re always anxious.
You don’t need to live in a constant state of fear to be safe. Imaginary fears can be more harmful than real ones. Instead, prepare for the avoidable risks, recognize that the most significant threats are unpredictable, and trust your fear instinct to protect you.