Your survival instinct could kill you. It tries to protect you from perceived dangers even when no real physical danger exists. In the process, it often ends up inhibiting your ability to perform well under pressure.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep your survival instinct under control and allow the logical part of your brain to make much better decisions.


Often when we sense danger, our survival instinct takes charge, mobilizing the automatic “fight or flight” response to steer us from peril. That can be a good thing at the appropriate times—for instance, if we have to run out of a burning building.

But this primitive survival instinct does not understand that in modern America, few of us experience life-threatening danger very often. What we do experience frequently is discomfort and stress. And our threshold for tolerating discomfort and stress has become very low.

We have become accustomed to lives of enhanced technology, safety and comfort, so the limbic system—which includes the part of the brain that generates the survival instinct—confuses life’s ordinary discomforts, frustrations and pressures with physical danger, triggering our survival instinct when it isn’t needed.

As a result, we might react to unpleasant but not unsafe situations as if our lives were on the line.

Examples: We might respond to a mild criticism by flying off the handle. We might become enraged at bad drivers, even if they’re only slowing us down, not putting us in jeopardy. Or we might do poorly on exams because our limbic system interprets test-taking stress as danger, diverting blood away from the logical part of the brain just when we need it to excel on the exam. Various studies have estimated that between 35% and 60% of test-takers fall victim to this phenomenon.

The usual advice to people who struggle to cope with uncomfortable or stressful situations is to try meditation or exercise to help them relax…or positive self-talk.

These are tools of the logical part of the brain. Although positive self-talk and meditation can be effective, there are many times when they are not enough to tame the irrational limbic brain. Expecting these methods to be effective at these times is like counting on a well-reasoned argument to sway a young child who is throwing a tantrum—the message simply won’t get through. Instead…


When the limbic system senses danger, it tries to put us on a nonstop one-way trip to our survival instinct. This trip is extremely difficult to stop once under way—but its impact can be diluted by retraining our brain to make additional stops along the way.

This retraining starts to take place during moments when you are calm—not stressed.

First, you need to select three sensory tools that you can draw upon mentally during times of stress…

1. A song that you consider uplifting—perhaps because it has upbeat lyrics…was used in an uplifting scene in a memorable movie…or reminds you of a successful moment in your life.

2. Visualize a person you associate with strength. This could be someone fictional, such as Superman, or someone real, such as a strong, steadfast friend.

3. Think of a scent that has a positive association for you—maybe the aftershave worn by your father…or the smell of pine trees at the mountain cottage where you always feel relaxed.

After you have lined up these tools, imagine a stressful situation. Then sing out loud your uplifting song…picture the person of strength…imagine the pleasurable scent. Practice doing this at least three to six times over the next week.

Once you have mastered this technique, the next time you find yourself in a situation that typically causes you stress or discomfort—or the next time an upcoming stressful event pops into your mind—immediately sing your uplifting song in your head…picture your strong person…and/or imagine that you are sniffing your uplifting scent.

Drawing on these symbols of strength will make you stronger and better able to dilute the fear.


By stimulating the auditory, visual and olfactory senses, you are bringing in other parts of the brain that are not part of its fear center. I call this strength in numbers—now there are several parts of the brain involved with the fear situation that have no relationship to fear. This type of conditioning weakens, or dilutes, the impact of the fear center of the brain. That should allow you to maintain some perspective and control.

Example: Where your survival instinct previously left you seeing only red rage when someone cut you off in traffic, this technique might allow you to experience a varied rainbow of feelings, with the survival instinct’s rage only part of your mental response. You also might feel a sense of optimism triggered by the uplifting song and a sense of strength from recalling the strong person, keeping any feelings of panic in perspective.


After you feel a bit calmer, consider naming a few things for which you are grateful. Fear isn’t the only feeling processed by the limbic system—it also processes other feelings, including gratitude. Intentionally recalling some things for which you feel gratitude can distract the limbic system’s attention away from its survival-instinct–based fears.

Examples: You might be grateful that you’re employed…or that your kids are healthy.

When you feel that your panic or agitation is under control, then you can use positive self-talk to give the stress- or discomfort-causing experience a positive spin. Tell yourself something such as, I love solving problems like these…or Working under pressure brings out the best in me.


It’s wonderful to live in comfort, but comfort comes at a price. The more accustomed we become to perpetual comfort, the more likely it is that our limbic systems will interpret discomfort as danger, triggering our survival instinct when it isn’t needed.

To avoid this, we must become more comfortable with discomfort. This can be done—consider all the discomfort that humans used to endure, and many still do, without complaint! When I was a child, my family lived in a very hot area with no air-conditioning, yet the heat didn’t much bother us. It’s only now that I’m used to air-conditioning that I feel I can’t possibly survive without it.

Here’s another example: We used to be out of contact with our colleagues and loved ones for hours every day. Only now that we have cell phones do many people become uncomfortable if they can’t check their messages every 15 minutes or even more often.

If we remind ourselves that we’re capable of enduring discomfort—and that most discomforts are temporary and trivial—our minds will stop associating discomfort with danger. Eventually our minds even might start associating discomfort with a sense of our own heartiness and resolve. But the only way to accomplish this is to sometimes let discomfort happen rather than rush to alleviate it.


Here are some ways to let discomfort “happen”…

    • If being hungry causes you discomfort, let yourself be hungry for a while each day rather than immediately reaching for a snack.
    • If being lost makes you uncomfortable, occasionally drive somewhere unfamiliar without using your GPS and wander around.
    • If lack of mental stimulation makes you uncomfortable, force yourself to spend time each week alone with your thoughts without turning on the TV or opening a book.
    • If being out of touch makes you uncomfortable, spend some time (more than 15 minutes) with your cell phone turned off.

Don’t try to distract yourself from these discomforts. Feel uncomfortable. You will grow!

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