How Fear Helps You in the Outdoors

©istockphoto/ueuaphotoIn real­i­ty, the like­li­hood of an out­door adven­tur­er get­ting hurt is much high­er in the most dan­ger­ous activ­i­ty of the day: dri­ving home. The chances of dying in white­wa­ter kayak­ing (or even sky­div­ing) are 17 times less than driving—even when held con­stant for the fact that we dri­ve a lot more fre­quent­ly.

We fear bears, light­ning strikes, sharks, and snakes far more than we fear things that are both more dan­ger­ous and more com­mon: hypother­mia, sprained ankles, heat exhaus­tion, get­ting lost, and weath­er changes. In dai­ly life we dis­play a sim­i­lar­ly non­sen­si­cal pat­tern: we fear fly­ing more than dri­ving, but fly­ing is much safer. We fear ter­ror­ist attacks and vio­lent crime more than we fear heart dis­ease or diabetes—which kill far more peo­ple.

Why Fear?
To real­ly know, we need to know what fear is for. Fear plays a crit­i­cal sur­vival func­tion: trig­ger­ing our fight-or-flight reflex and mak­ing us more cau­tious. Lack of fear—which is stim­u­lat­ed by anger—can lead us to take fool­ish risks. Much of our fear is hard-wired from our evo­lu­tion. Bears are big preda­tors, and we evolved with plen­ty of big preda­tors that saw us as a snack. Snakes and spiders—small and gen­er­al­ly not aggressive—packed poi­son; fear of snakes is present even in peo­ple who have nev­er seen one in real life. But not all fear is con­sis­tent: some peo­ple see a big dog as a devour­ing mon­ster. The next per­son will give it a big hug and want to take it home.

Psy­chol­o­gist Shankar Vedan­tam told the Wash­ing­ton Post that we tend to exag­ger­ate fears when they are unusu­al, like air­plane crash­es, light­ning strikes, or earth­quakes, then com­mon occur­rences like car acci­dents or hypother­mia. We over­es­ti­mate the num­ber of acci­dents and the like­li­hood of it hap­pen­ing to us. Fear sys­tems are also trig­gered more quick­ly when we can attribute some sort of “malev­o­lence” to the cause: crime, ter­ror­ism, bears, and snakes. Our fear is trig­gered far less when there’s no “ene­my”: bad weath­er, a loose rock that twists a knee, or a sun-warmed avalanche slope.

And fear is a poor tool for slow and incre­men­tal risks, as the onset of heart dis­ease or cli­mate change. Because fear trig­gers a fight-or-flight response to com­bat an imme­di­ate threat, it doesn’t work over long peri­ods of time. In the out­doors, this pos­es some risk: we can miss storm clouds slow­ly build­ing or the of slow fatigue that sets the stage for a larg­er acci­dent.

How to Deal With and Har­ness Fear
How can we use fear to our advan­tage in the wilds? How can we stop our irra­tional fears from par­a­lyz­ing us or killing the enjoy­ment of the wilder­ness? Here are some places to start:

1. Use Fear
If you’re afraid when you’re about to drop into a big rapid or tra­verse a steep slope over a rush­ing gorge, there may be a rea­son. Let your fear encour­age you, then reassess and become more cau­tious. That’s what fear is for, and in some degree, it’s doing its job by mak­ing you care. And if you do decide to run that rapid, mod­er­ate amounts of fear give you a per­for­mance advan­tage by releas­ing adren­a­line that gives you a quick­er respons­es and more strength.

2. Smile and Laugh
Mod­er­ate amounts of fear are help­ful, but too much fear will immo­bi­lize you and drain you. To reduce your fear, smile. Laugh. Tell jokes. Horse around. These phys­i­cal moves will stim­u­late your parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem, help­ing shut down the fight-or-flight response. Even if you don’t feel like smil­ing, the mus­cle move­ment affects your sys­tem and helps you unwind. Fake it till you make it.

3. Con­front The Sil­ly Stuff
Con­front the less ratio­nal fears we face in the outdoors—the dark, some crea­ture lurk­ing out there, or being alone. Go for a walk in the dark. Over time, the instinc­tive part of your brain will learn that it’s not some­thing to be so afraid of.

4. Watch the Small Stuff
Train your­self to be aware of where our evo­lu­tion­ary instincts tend to fail us. Devel­op a quick eye for the small risks that are slow­ly accu­mu­lat­ing: fatigue, dehy­dra­tion, dete­ri­o­rat­ing weath­er, a group mak­ing slow­er time than planned; and that might hit prob­lems lat­er in the day, and the mem­ber of your group who’s start­ing to look exhaust­ed and wob­bly.

Franklin Roo­sevelt over­sim­pli­fied when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The only thing we have to fear is fear of the wrong things.