Being on the Alert for Danger

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Sometimes people can get stuck in 'danger mode'. When this happens their survival instincts are on the alert for danger and behaving as if they've found it almost constantly.

This can be seen in severe cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute anxiety state, or with some cases of generalised anxiety disorder. Unlike symptoms of anxieties which come and go depending on circumstamces - notably those associated with panic attacks or specific phobias - these symptoms are there almost constantly.

What causes a person to get stuck in danger mode?

These symptoms often develop because the person concerned has recently experienced either a severe trauma or many things have gone wrong in their life too close together for them to have come to terms with each one as it happened.

In these cases the life events have caused the arousal system to keep being raised negatively day after day by thoughts about what has happened. When this happens its as of the arousal gets stuck on high.

The result of this is that the survival instinct is repeatedly triggered and, believing danger is imminent, it keeps the person alert and looking for this danger. As the survival instinct is trying to keep them looking for the source of the danger it prevents them from focusing on anything else so they experience severely reduced ability to concentrate.

For the same reason they find it difficult to sleep and frequently have nightmares if they do. So a vicious cycle ensues. Sufferers are unable to put their minds on anything which might prove more pleasant due to the demand by their instincts to keep looking for danger. Furthermore, just the fact that sufferers feel like this and feel out of control of their lives only adds to their anxieties.

When this happens the arousal system and the survival instinct get stuck in a spiral in which one keeps feeding the other.

It is very important to understand that as far as our brains are concerned there is little difference between what we imagine and what is real.

That statement may surprise you but it's true. Sport Psychology uses this fact a lot. By getting sports people to visualise doing whatever it is correctly their performance improves just as if they had actually practised it for real.

The flip side of this, of course, is when we all imagine, or recall, bad experiences and feel that negative emotion all over again. When we do that our survival instinct will assume it is happening for real.

When someone develops this symptom as the result of a trauma, therapy aims to get them to stop buying into the reminders that pop into their thoughts from time to time because to do so will simply keep them coming. This is explained in more detail in the section on PTSD.

There are, however, people who have a great deal of daily anxiety of this sort. Many of these people tend to spend much of their time thinking about, "What if…"  They also tend to worry about what MIGHT happen.

arousal point of no return

The arousal system thermometer moves constantly and it is not a bad thing to have higher arousal levels as these are indicative of excitement as well as anxiety. The problem occurs when we feel NEGATIVE about the arousal level. That is, when we tell ourselves we are feeling afraid, anxious, worried etc. When the arousal goes up with a negative label on it, the survival instinct starts paying attention.

If your negative arousal goes up past what I have called the 'Point of No Return' this is when the instinct takes over completely. Examples of this are when, for example, a nightclub catches fire and people trample others to get out. That is the work of the survival instinct which makes rational human beings behave in a way that takes no account of others.

So, as guidance it helps to remember that... 

All NEGATIVE arousal is bad news

As far as possible, if you can minimise the amount of negative arousal you experiences, the less bothered by anxiety you will be.

Thirty years ago when I had my own acute anxiety state to deal with, I realised I had to avoid negative arousal to get myself back to normal. To help me do this I imagined I had a huge reservoir of calm inside me.

reservoir of calm

I knew that the higher I could keep the level in the reservoir, the further I was from anxiety attacks. I therefore carefully guarded the amount of water I had there.

Every time I caught myself starting to think or feel anything negative I would focus elsewhere immediately, because every negative emotion or thought was draining water from my reservoir. I then used a mindfulness technique to re-focus.

The use of techniues such as this and when and how to use them is described in the Feelgood Way

Common Symptoms of Anxiety

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  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Anxiety Symptoms
  3. Alert for Danger