09/27/2010 07:35 am ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

Risk Vs. Fear: Safe Is Sorry

It's one of the great, or maybe not so great, paradoxes of the human condition. In your brain every day the forces of fear and safety are hard at work trying to keep you in your bunker and squelch your craving for novelty, self-determination and freedom, otherwise known as progress. No wonder we get headaches. We are of two minds, one wanting to go forward, one backward, like the double-noggin creature in the Roosevelt Grier/Ray Milland classic, "The Thing with Two Heads."

The rivalry is not much of a contest these days, with historic insecurity and armies of fear-mongers. The bunker (the Ray Milland head) almost always wins. That's a loss, because it turns out that your brain neurons don't want what we're told they do: the garrison of comfort. They want engagement. To get it, you have to move beyond the known world and risk, something anathema to the security default that is more effective at holding you at bay than the world. There's no life without risk, no movement, no freedom, learning or surprises. The key elements for long-term life fulfillment are novelty and challenge, according to behavioral scientist Gregory Berns. We're not here to be cooped up.

The need to venture beyond the familiar is so important to human development that the brain responds to an anticipated unknown event as if it was a positive outcome. MRI scans have shown that the brain interprets a potential experience of novelty as if it already happened.

The expectation of a novel experience triggers the release of the body's party chemical, the neurotransmitter dopamine. A team of German scientists found that this reward signal is a motivational tool for learning and for something else--making us remember it so we'll do this sort of thing again. The more you take on the unknown, the more inclined you are to venture. Researchers call this reward the "exploration bonus." I love the term. We're all explorers, if we can lose the ball-and-chain of the comfort zone. You can give yourself a bonus every day, when you step outside the secure perimeter.

That can't be done when fear is calling the shots. Studies show that failure to manage anxieties leads to aversive behavior, not good for risk-taking or growth. We cling to the status quo to preserve what we think provides safety and comfort, but that shuts off progress. As John Steinbeck once put it, "We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it." Safe is sorry.

Experts say we have an itchy security trigger because the species had to be hyper-alert to survive back in our sketchier days on the African savanna. As a result, we overestimate risk and underestimate the cost of playing it safe. The problem is our two minds have very different notions of "security." For the bunker mind, security is about shoring up what you know, what you have, where you've been. This doesn't do it for the mind of engagement, which is focused on where you need to go and what you need to know to follow the self-determination mandate a couple hundred studies have documented we have. Comfort feels cozy, but fall too much under its spell and the result is stagnation, boredom and a denial of what it is that actually makes you feel secure in your gut: engaged involvement in your world.

Case in point: rock climber Sara Lingafelter. Lingafelter is one of a number of folks I met on the road to Don't Miss Your Life who are pushing through comfort zones with their passions. Initially, it didn't seem that climbing was much of a fit. She had a fear of heights and a fear of falling, issues quite understandable to any flightless land animal. She had no trouble with the indoor climbing walls, but outside, on much higher, less dependable natural rock devoid of obvious grips, that was another matter. "I'd find myself in a state of panic," she told me. "I'd hyperventilate and have to be lowered off the climb and friends would have to retrieve my gear."

Most of us would have bagged it at that point. But Lingafelter stuck with it, reaching into the fear for months. It wasn't out of masochism but the opposite--a determination that thoughts she knew were irrational wouldn't be allowed to mess up what she liked more than anything else: sharing outdoor adventures with friends in nature. The right motivation can wear down any fear, desire overpowering dread; so can action. Do the thing you fear, and the projected disaster is proven to be what it is, fantasy. Fear is fueled by what you tell yourself about a perceived danger and your reaction to it. You can change that story with action and by reframing the mental images that trigger the fearful story.

Over many slabs of stone Lingafelter built up her competence, and that deactivated the false alarms of the amygdala, the brain's fear central. Today, she's a confident climber on routes that once seemed impossible, and she's become one of the top bloggers in the outdoor realm ( This summer she climbed icy Mt. Rainier in her home state of Washington. Climbing taught her to trust herself and manage fear, which has helped turn down the resistance to change in other parts of life. She swapped lawyering and a place where stability was her main concern for a less certain but more fulfilling marketing direction in the outdoor world.

One of the best ways to punch through the bunker of risk-aversion is plunging into activities and passions off-the-clock, as Lingafelter did with climbing. This stuff isn't supposed to be worth much, compared to "productive" fare, but it has the power to reset all the usual barriers. You're free to tackle risk thresholds without judgment, building up a sense of competence and a belief you can take on things and handle them that crosses over to other parts of your life.

The more you step out to be self-determined, the more you strengthen intrinsic self-esteem, which cuts down on the security reflex. Researchers have found that people whose self-worth is based on intrinsic factors--internal validation, growth, challenge--are much less defensive in their outlook than those whose esteem is rooted in external achievements and approval. When you're secure in your own skin and identity, there's less need to protect the outer props.

Yes, there are plenty of uncertainties to jack up the nerves these days. That doesn't mean we have to be immobilized by them. Contest the fear. Take the chance. Insist on paying yourself a bonus, if nobody else will, in the form of full engagement in your life.

Joe Robinson is an author and work-life balance/stress management trainer, whose new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," explores the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. The book is out Oct. 26. For more info, visit, and For workshops and coaching, visit