How Fear Works to Keep You Safe


Did I really lock the doors? Is that a noise in the garage? I wish my creepy neighbor would just move away. The minute a deployment starts, military spouses, partners and Milsos are suddenly aware of the realities of being “home alone.” Especially if they have kids.

Due to my own military deployments and my current career in private security, I recognize these concerns. I want to arm you with five principles that will increase your safety and security when you are home alone.

These lessons come straight from Gavin de Becker’s #1 bestseller, The Gift of Fear. This book has proved so valuable that in 2008, Oprah Winfrey dedicated an entire show commemorating The Gift of Fear’s 10-year anniversary, announcing, “This book can save your life.”  

1. True Fear is a Gift
Think about how you felt the last time you felt you were being watched in a darkened parking lot, or a stranger made you feel uncomfortable, or any other situation when you just felt "something ain’t right.” What you were feeling is Fear, not worry or anxiety, but True Fear. Maybe it came in the way of a jolt. Or maybe a more subtle message like a gut feeling, a hunch, or a hesitation. These are all nature’s gift to us. That’s right: Fear is a gift -- a gift that can save your life.

Every animal in nature is equipped with intuitive mechanisms for detecting fear. When a rabbit senses danger, he doesn’t explore what that danger is, he receives the message loud and clear and flees the scene. The rabbit listens and acts upon his intuition, and so can we.
2. Intuition: How to Detect Danger
If True Fear is our survival signal, then our body’s intuition is the vehicle that delivers such signals.


Military veterans often recall times when intuition has delivered such fear signals. Picture a sergeant leading a patrol in Afghanistan. He and his squad might have crossed a certain intersection every day for the past six months, yet today, something is different -- he has a feeling he can’t explain. When he approaches the intersection, the hairs on his neck stand up. Listening to his fear signal, he chooses to avoid the intersection and take the long way back to base (a decision his exhausted men don’t like). After taking the detour and returning to base safely, the sergeant thinks, “Why didn’t I cross that road today? Why did I feel the hairs on my neck?”

As he considers his decision, he recalls that kids weren’t playing in the road like they normally do. The adults weren’t gathered outside their homes smoking cigarettes like they normally do. In short, the environment had changed; it was no longer “normal.” Yet at the time, he didn’t consciously know it, but his subconscious (intuition) did, so it sent him a signal through those hairs on the back of his neck.

Believe it or not, we subconsciously absorb tons of information (including possible danger) through our five senses. Fortunately for us, our intuition forms a bridge that sends those unconscious bits of information straight to our conscious body through fear signals like pits in our stomach and hairs on our neck. The lesson is to listen. Don’t override these signals with logic like “it must be nothing” or “I’m overreacting.”

3. Normal vs. Abnormal
Gavin de Becker reminds us in The Gift of Fear that our intuition is always on duty -- even when we are not. Ever notice it takes a few days to sleep well in a new house? That’s because your intuition needs time to categorize all the little noises of this new environment; in short, to categorize all that’s normal, all that’s safe. A few months later, if there’s an abnormal noise, you’ll receive that intuitive spike warning you that danger could be present.

In the military, I would often return home late at night and make tons of noise without waking my wife because even asleep, she knew it was me. Yet, if the most subtle noise occurred any other time, my wife would awaken suddenly and ask me, “What was that!?” Our intuition is always on duty, even when we sleep.

Our intuition can also detect danger when it’s right in front of us. The Gift of Fear offers this scenario:

You’re home alone with a stranger, someone delivering furniture. After a minute of him in your house, you start to feel uncomfortable -- different than you’ve felt with other deliverymen, though you can’t immediately explain why. Well, here’s why: You’ve predicted that he’s dangerous because you noticed that he’s not normal -- that is, acting like the typical furniture deliveryman. If you know normal (safe or favorable), you also know its opposite: abnormal (unsafe or unfavorable). De Becker calls this the “Rule of Opposites.”

Let’s apply it to the deliveryman scenario:



Does his job and no more

Offers to help on unrelated tasks

Respectful of privacy

Curious, asks many questions

Waits to be escorted

Walks around the house freely

Keeps his comments to the job at hand

Makes personal comments

Mindful of the time; works quickly

In no hurry to leave

Doesn’t care if others are home

Wants to know if others are home

Doesn’t care if others are expected

Wants to know if others are expected

Doesn’t pay attention to you

Stares at you



4. Denial Is No Friend To You
Though intuition sends us fear signals like an uncomfortable hunch, it never answers “why.” In an age when we’re expected to explain all of our actions and a “hunch” just won’t do, we often choose to dismiss impulses of True Fear as “ridiculous” or an overreaction -- a denial that danger could be present.

According to de Becker, “Denial serves to eliminate the discomfort of accepting realities we’d rather not acknowledge” -- uncomfortable “realities” like this person is dangerous. Unfortunately, wishing away bad things won’t protect us or our families.

Picture a woman returning home from work and discovering that the side gate is open. She thinks to herself, “I swear I shut that gate. ... Oh well, I must have forgotten and, besides, bad things don’t happen in this neighborhood.” What should she do? Perhaps find a neighbor to walk through the house with her? But it’s 8 p.m., and she doesn’t want to bug the neighbor, or even worse, be labeled a “worrier.” As a result, she doesn’t ask for help. She has now dismissed her initial feelings of fear as an overreaction, and she enters the house.

Animals don’t hold ego or worry like we do; consequently, they don’t deny their intuitive impulses of fear. When it senses danger, the rabbit never considers, “What will the neighbors think?” or “It’s rude to walk out on the creepy delivery guy.” The moment that rabbit senses abnormality, its intuition spikes, a fear signal is sent, and the rabbit reacts. It doesn’t contemplate “why” or dismiss its fears as “ridiculous.”

5. Worry vs. Fear
“Though the world is a very dangerous place,” de Becker writes, “it’s also a safe place.” Yet you wouldn’t know it by watching the six o’clock news, whose whole mission in life is to scare the crap out of you! Whether it’s terrorism, toys that can kill you or those damn killer bees, the news is there to convince you that if you don’t watch, you might die

The odds of you dying from terrorism, dangerous toys or killer bees are nothing compared to your chances of dying in a car accident. The news relies upon ratings, and selling “fear” keeps worried parents glued to the TV. Yet we know this isn’t True Fear; it is manufactured fear.

Manufactured fear is all about what “could” happen. Sitting on my couch, I can worry about my wife’s safety at work. I can worry about my father’s heart condition. I could worry about my own job security. The mind loves to chew on hypothetical problems or compound current problems with horrible scenarios. As our mind chews on these problems, guess what happens? You got it: nothing.

Worrying, de Becker writes, can actually cause you additional harm because it interrupts clear thinking, wastes time, and shortens life. Worry is a state -- a protracted period of time where you consider all that’s bad. True Fear, de Becker writes, “is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of danger.”

So next time you’re in a state of worry, de Becker recommends you ask yourself this question: “How does this (worrying) serve me?” For it was Mark Twain who said, “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

To best free yourself of worry and still gain the gift of True Fear, de Becker cites these three goals to strive for:

  1. When you feel fear or any intuitive signal, listen.
  2. When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.
  3. If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why. (Am I responding to something in my environment, or something in my imagination?)

In my career, I’ve spent many nights away from my wife. Knowing that she has read The Gift of Fear adds to my peace of mind, and reminds me that most of us do not need a private security firm or a bodyguard to remain safe. Nature has already equipped us with our own internal security system through awareness, intuition, and fear. And though we are genetically equipped with this security system, it remains our choice to listen and act upon its alarms.

Keep yourself safe during this deployment. Keep your family safe. Choose to listen to your Gift of Fear.

To see interview clips of Gavin de Becker discussing these protection strategies for women on the Oprah Winfrey Show, visit their website.

-- Ed Hinman is the Director of Recruitment, Selection, and Training at Gavin de Becker & Associates, a threat assessment and executive protection firm that advises and protects the nation’s most at-risk public figures and organizations. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Hinman served eight years in the United States Marine Corps before beginning his private security career in Los Angeles.

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