Your Fear Response Explained: How Do You React to Danger?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Becoming Bulletproof" by Evy Poumpouras. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What triggers your fear response? What’s your personal instinct when reacting to dangerous situations?

In Becoming Bulletproof, former U.S. Secret Service agent Evy Poumpouras teaches you how to pursue the life you want without fear. Her book offers strategies for building resilience by teaching you how to understand your responses to fear and danger and how to control them.

Read on to learn about how your fear response influences you, according to Poumpouras.

Understanding Your Fear Response

In her book Becoming Bulletproof, Evy Poumpouras argues that to become a more resilient person, you need to first understand your own fear response. Fear plays an important part in our lives. Fear can keep you safe in many situations, but it can also be debilitating and keep you from enjoying life. In this article, we’ll look at how we develop fears and how assessing our fears from a more logical perspective can help us cope with them and become more resilient.

Types of Fear: Innate and Acquired

Poumpouras says there are two kinds of fear responses: innate and acquired. Innate fears are present from birth. The only two universal innate fears are the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. We know they’re innate because even babies show signs of fear when they encounter heights or loud noises.  

(Shortform note: Though Poumpouras claims there are only two universally recognized innate fears, there is evidence other fears are with us from birth. Many infants show signs that they’re naturally afraid of predators, pain, and rapidly approaching objects. For example, predators like snakes and spiders elicit a negative reaction from children as young as six months, before they’d be able to learn these creatures are dangerous.)

All other fears, according to Poumpouras, are acquired—in other words, fears we learn to have. Acquired fears come in many forms and from many places: from our personal trauma, our communities, the media, and from society as a whole. Our most persistent, harmful, and illogical fears usually stem from society and the media. This happens because the media highlights rare, sensational stories of danger—like a shark attack or plane crash—which make such stories seem more common, and thus more dangerous, than they are. While some acquired fears benefit us, Poumpouras argues that many acquired fears do more harm than good. This is because they can keep you from enjoying a happy and successful life without significantly increasing your survival rate. For instance, if you’re afraid of flying, you miss out on the enriching experience of travel. If you’re deathly afraid of sharks, you miss out on the simple joy of swimming in the ocean. 

Our Overreaction to Fear and Its Connection to the Media

In Factfulness, Hans Rosling not only agrees with Poumpouras that people overestimate the likelihood of certain dangers, but also adds that people underestimate the likelihood of other, more common dangers. For instance, from 2007 to 2016, a time when many lived in constant fear of a terrorist attack, fewer than 1,500 people died from terrorist activities in developed countries. In that same time frame, 69,000 people annually died from alcohol-related causes.

Rosling also elaborates on why the media spotlights fear-inducing stories. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, media outlets are constantly fighting for viewer attention, and drumming up fear is the easiest and most effective way to gain viewers. Therefore, we’re constantly bombarded with news stories on scary and dramatic events from around the world. Natural disasters, murder, plane crashes, and other deadly events have become part of our everyday media intake.

How to Control Fears: Think About Them Rationally

Now that you know what types of fears might be limiting the scope of your life, let’s examine what you can do about them. Poumpouras argues that looking at your fears rationally—say, by examining statistics about those fears—can help lessen the power they have over you. For instance, although many people are more afraid of dying in a plane crash than in a car crash, statistics show you’re far more likely to die in a car crash. 

(Shortform note: Though understanding the irrationality of your fears is a good first step toward overcoming them, it’s also important to face your fears head on. You may understand that a particular fear is irrational, but this knowledge won’t help you if you continue to irrationally avoid it. When you avoid your fears, you reinforce the idea that they’re dangerous, and you’re likely to feel relief avoiding them. This ensures you’ll continue to avoid them in the future. If you face your fears head on, however, you’ll prevent this vicious cycle of avoidance, and you’ll probably discover that what you feared isn’t as terrifying or traumatizing as you imagined—this is another way to realize that they’re irrational.)

Understanding How You React to Danger

Poumpouras argues that another way you can become more resilient is to understand how and why you normally respond to danger, conflict, or stress. Understanding which fear response is your default can help you modify that response to be more constructive.

When faced with immediate danger, we usually respond in one of three ways—fight, flight, or freeze. Let’s now look at these three responses and how understanding your typical response can help you deal with danger.

Types of Responses to Danger: Fight, Flight, Freeze

The fight, flight, or freeze responses to danger are the human body’s way of protecting itself. In general, people fight back when they feel they can defend themselves against a threat. When they feel they can get away from a threat, they flee. When they feel they can do neither, they freeze. 

You can respond in such ways because, when met with danger, the body releases hormones that produce physiological responses to prepare you to deal with a threat. They cause your heart to beat faster, your breathing to increase, your pupils to dilate, and your muscles to tense. You become more focused, alert, and powerful. 

(Shortform note: One of the dangers of the fight, flight, or freeze response is that it keeps us from using our brains effectively in crucial situations. When the fight or flight response kicks in, our brain essentially shuts down to allow our body to deal with this imminent danger. This can be a huge issue because some situations require a more thoughtful, careful approach, but our brains aren’t working at full capacity.)

How to Mitigate Danger: Determine Your Typical Response

Poumpouras claims that the better you understand your typical fear response, the more you can control it. The more you can control your fear response, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with dangerous situations. 

Though the way you react to danger may vary depending on the situation, most people have a default response, or at the least a pattern they typically follow. For example, in most dangerous situations your default response may be to run. Sometimes running may be the best response, while other times it might actually put you in more danger. 

Once you know your typical fear response, you can use this information to make calculated decisions instead of unconscious reactions to danger. For instance, the next time you get the urge to run away, instead of immediately acting on that urge, ask yourself if that’s the right move in the current situation. When you do this, you think about danger in a more practical way and give yourself more options to get to safety. 

Imagine you encounter a bear in the wild. Your immediate response may be to run away when it starts walking toward you, but this would make it more likely to chase you and put you at much greater risk. Should you fight instead? Of course not. Instead, you decide to remain still and let the bear walk past you harmlessly. 

An Alternative Approach to Dealing With Fear: The Pause-and-Plan Response

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal expands on Poumpouras’s recommended danger response with more insight. She writes that to react more thoughtfully to danger, you can employ your brain’s “pause-and-plan” response. When this response is activated, your heart rate slows down, your muscles relax, and the decision-making part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) is in control. You can think deliberately and rationally rather than jumping to your default response to danger. 

In this way, the pause-and-plan response is your body’s response to the danger that you pose to yourself: the poor choices you might make that could exacerbate an already bad situation. For instance, if you physically flee when your partner asks to have a serious conversation with you, you’re harming yourself by jeopardizing your relationship. But if you use the pause-and-plan response, you can prevent yourself from making the situation between you and your partner worse and calmly opt to talk things out. 

The pause-and-plan response not only gives you the mental space to make better decisions in the face of danger, but also allows you to make better decisions in your day-to-day life. Thinking calmly and deliberately lets you override default reactions to common stimuli—like work stress, tiredness, cravings, and so on—and make decisions that benefit you in the long term (to not get mad at your boss, to take a nap, and to eat healthfully, for instance). 

Exercise: Improve Your Fear Response

Think about how you recently reacted to danger and how you can react more appropriately to such danger in the future.

  • Think of a time when you faced immediate danger or a threat to your well-being. What was your reaction? Did you fight, run away, or freeze? 
  • In hindsight, was your response appropriate to the danger? Why or why not? 
  • What could you do next time you’re in a dangerous situation or under threat to ensure you make the best decision? Recall that Poumpouras recommends thinking about fears rationally and questioning the appropriateness of your typical fear response in the moment. 
Your Fear Response Explained: How Do You React to Danger?

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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