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, than 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, like 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 careful. And if you do decide to run that rapid, moderate amounts of fear give you a performance advantage by releasing adrenaline that gives you 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.