For many veterans, venturing out in a crowded public place can mean a good deal of stress and anxiety. Whether it’s your local Applebees on Trivia Night or the recent Presidential Inauguration, years of training keeps some of us in a steady state of unease, constantly looking around for where a threat could be coming from, concerned about how the crowd will react if things were to get hairy. In the eyes of many, including my wife, this low-level anxiety is nothing more than paranoia – but in a life or death situation, it boils down to simple awareness. If we ever were to find ourselves in an emergency, it could be that paranoia that gets us out alive.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, growing up in the developed world has awarded many of us a uniquely naïve perspective on life. We tend to think of things as peaceful, and for the most part, unchanging. We get riled up about presidential elections and the like, pretending we believe each change of power will usher in some kind of an end to the peace we’ve enjoyed all our lives, but at the end of the day, we all expect to come home to our houses and apartments, pop on Netflix, and watch “Stranger Things” again to get a taste of what the world would be like if we weren’t safely snuggled into a cocoon of having the world’s most powerful military protecting our borders and an army of first responders waiting for the chance to come help us if we need it.
This comfort level really is a gift. In many nations around the world, and indeed for the better part of human history, the possibility of suffering a sudden and violent death was always a real one. We evolved to be constantly aware of our surroundings, paranoid about what could come out of that dark area just past the horizon, or out of that creepy crawl space beneath your grandmother’s porch. As a result, those of us fortunate enough to live in the relative safety and security of the United States grew up training ourselves to ignore those fears – we all had to reach that point where we shut off our night lights, and when we embraced the idea that the dark wouldn’t bring with it any new dangers.
Over years of development, our habit of silencing our fears develops into what is commonly referred to as “normalcy bias.”
Normalcy bias sets in when you find yourself noticing something out of the ordinary, maybe someone acting suspiciously or a discarded backpack on the ground, and although we register the potential threat initially, we immediately shrug it off – telling ourselves that we’re being paranoid, or that bad things don’t happen in “this part of town.” For many, it serves as an emotional defense mechanism; choosing to ignore something we find unsettling is far easier than addressing it, and today’s society has bred an aversion to confrontation into many of us. We’ve grown more afraid of the social repercussions of acting on our fears than we have of those fears themselves.
In a dangerous situation, normalcy bias can cost you or your loved ones your lives. Spotting something that seems fishy and taking immediate action to get yourself out of a dangerous situation will often grant you a head start over the oblivious public around you, but the time you spend arguing with yourself about whether or not a threat is worth acting on could be the hesitation that costs you.
In movies, bad guys are clearly defined. They approach you in a dark alley with a knife already drawn and held out ahead of them like in a Michael Jackson video, or they point their guns to the sky and announce their presence to the public. In reality, bad guys rarely think of themselves as such. They rarely announce themselves and they often will tip toe the line between outward aggressiveness and social etiquette. An attacker will often seem normal enough, right up until it’s too late.
So how do you combat normalcy bias without seeming like a paranoid nut? Of course, we all feel as safe as we do, because by and large, we are safe, so it can be difficult to walk that line between being the person that always assumes the worst and being the victim of our own inability to assess dangers.
Instead of thinking your way out of worrying about something, try paying attention to what your body is telling you.
We all get gut feelings from time to time. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, but we can rarely quantify what caused them. Because it can be so difficult to articulate the reasoning behind a gut feeling, they can be easy to dismiss – but before you disregard that sense of unease you have about the man in the next booth at Denny’s, consider that there might be a reason for it.
Our brains are incredibly complex calculators, taking in and computing countless variables at any given moment and providing your conscious self with only as much as you can handle. You wouldn’t know what to do with all of the data sets pouring into your grey matter at any given moment, so we tend to think we aren’t receiving them at all. Try to think of your brain and mind as separate things – your mind, complete with conscious thought and internal monologue, gets status updates from your brain, which is tasked with keeping your body running and interpreting all the data sent back through your nervous system. When your brain recognizes the signs of danger, for instance, it may not be able to transmit that to your mind in a way that makes logical, rational sense… but that doesn’t make the data wrong.
Instead of ignoring your gut feeling, pay attention to what it’s saying. Instead of using rational thought to quickly disregard the sensation, use your mind to try to find any validity to the concern. Don’t let gut feelings rule your decision-making process, but give those warnings the attention they deserve.
It might just save your life.
Image courtesy of MGN Online