Dangerous or Scary?

Quick Summary: We often confuse scary and dangerous. They are not the same.

Fear is a primal emotion that plays a significant role in our lives. It acts as a survival instinct, alerting us to potential threats and dangers. However, it is important to recognize that not everything that scares us is necessarily dangerous. And, things that are truly dangerous do not always scare us. Differentiating between what is genuinely perilous, and what may feel scary but poses little risk helps us make better decisions

Things that are scary are just that– they elicit fear, anxiety, or unease, provoke an adrenaline response, and register in our minds. It can encompass various aspects of life, such as horror movies, haunted houses, or roller coasters. The essence of scariness lies in the perception of a threat, regardless of whether it poses an actual danger.

Dangerous refers to situations or objects that possess a genuine potential for harm, injury, or adverse consequences. It involves a tangible risk that can lead to physical, mental, or emotional harm. While sometimes things that are scary are also dangerous, often, genuine danger does not provoke a fear response.

We often conflate the two, assuming that because something is scary, it is also dangerous (or vice versa). A good example is walking along the ledge of a cliff. This is both scary (I’m afraid) and dangerous (if I fall, I will likely die). However, doing that same walk while securely anchored to a rope might still be scary (I’m afraid), but likely not dangerous (if I fall, the rope will catch me).

In another example, a roller coaster ride can be scary (intense speed, height, and twists). However, despite the adrenaline rush it induces, roller coasters are designed with safety measures to prevent accidents and are not really dangerous. While the experience may be frightening, it is not inherently dangerous as long as the ride adheres to strict safety standards.

In contrast, climbing a ladder is actually filled with a fair amount of danger. Falling from a ladder can result in all kinds of injuries– and ladder falls are relatively common (certainly much more common than roller-coaster accidents). However, for most of us, we do get sweaty palms, or a racing heart rate when we step on a ladder. We don’t have to psych ourselves up for it, and often, our perception of danger is low. And yet…

In one final example, consider swimming in the ocean. When we think about ocean swimming, our fearful mind probably goes to concerns about shark attacks, or getting stung by a jellyfish. Scary! But, not common. Actual danger: relatively low. However, because of our fear of a shark bite, we focus on this fear and take precautions to prevent it. But the actual dangers of ocean swimming are different and do not invoke a lot of fear, things like strong currents, hidden underwater obstacles, or hypothermia.

Conflating danger with scary limits our ability to effectively respond. We might be afraid to talk to new people or pursue new projects because we are scared. What if they don’t like me? What if the project doesn’t work out? While the fear might be real, the danger is not, and appropriately recognizing the lack of danger can help us overcome our fear.

Recognizing that something is scary, but is not dangerous, can help us overcome our fear. When the worst that can happen is not actually that bad, when the downsides of acting are minimal, why not do it? In a similar vein, things that pose genuine risk (say, driving a car), can be perceived as without danger. This can limit our ability to put effective safeguards in place, which in turn exposes us to more danger.

Accurately categorizing situations promotes mental well-being. By recognizing that some things are merely scary and not truly dangerous, we can manage our fears more effectively. This understanding allows us to confront our fears in a controlled manner, leading to personal growth and increased self-confidence.

This applies particularly well to our health– the things we fear are not usually the things that are dangerous. The things that are dangerous, we do not appropriately fear. What is dangerous when it comes to health? Being sedentary and not exercising. Smoking. Eating a diet high in processed foods. Social isolation. We do not think of sitting alone all day, drinking soda, and eating chips as dangerous, and yet… it is.

Recognizing when we are scared (but not in danger) helps us overcome our fear. When we are in danger (but not scared), we are falsely (and dangerously) complacent. When we are afraid (and in danger), that’s appropriate. And lastly, when we are not afraid, and not in danger, that’s also appropriate.

So, what do you fear that isn’t really dangerous? What situations do you perceive as scary, but carry little risk? What do you do that is dangerous but does not provoke an appropriate fear response?

-Dr. Justin