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How To Survive Dangerous Situations

There are times when being fearless is more reckless than reasonable. Read these six mistakes you could make during a scary scenario.

When it comes to getting what you want in life, being fearless isn't a choice, it's a must. That intrepid quality fuels you to jump on the right career opportunities, not to settle for a relationship that isn't one hundred percent fulfilling, and to take the kind of risks that lead to amazing experiences.

Our instincts, honed from years of confidence-boosting experiences, tell us to be courageous, but there are times when that inner strength can betray us—maybe even get us killed. "Being confident and aggressive in a dangerous circumstance might feel like the right response, but it can actually place you at serious risk," says Todd Post, the assistant director of communications for the National Crime Prevention Council.

The thing is, when faced with a perilous situation, it's not always clear when to play passive. As you know, if you've never been in a particular scenario before, you're bound to make a mistake. And while slipping up may not be the end of the world in other areas of life, in some survival cases, it is. That's why we've outlined the lifesaving guide below—so you'll know when acting on your fearlessness isn't the answer.

Mistake #1: Letting Confidence Override Your Gut

In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker explains that victims of potentially violent behavior often intuitively sense danger before the attack occurs. "The problem is that too many women distrust that fear," he says. And one of the reasons we ignore the twinge when a guy gives us the creeps, or the flight instinct when someone sketchy confronts us, may be the climate of empowerment we enjoy.

"Today, women are stronger than ever," says lawyer Ellen Snortland, graduate of Impact, a national self-defense program for women, and author of Beauty Bites Beast. "We learn to defend ourselves physically in self-defense classes, get strong in gym workouts, and act tough in the workplace." But that inner strength distorts your survival instinct, because you feel invincible. So rather than cross the street to avoid an oddball, you hear an indignant voice in your head proclaiming "I have the right to walk down this sidewalk too!" or chiding "Stop overreacting—nothing will happen."

Mistake #2: Assuming The Weapon Is Just There To Scare You

"It's true that most muggers brandish a weapon as a form of intimidation only and they have no real intention of using the gun," says safety expert Tom Patire, author of Tom Patire's Personal Protection Handbook. "The real problem arises when people figure that's the case and call their mugger's bluff." You might give your attacker a bit of lip—"You're not scaring me"—or strike out with an elbow to the rib cage if he's up against you at the ATM. Bad idea. "By fighting back, you put your assailant on the spot and make him far more likely to use the weapon in an adrenaline-fueled reaction."

The right way to act: "Anytime an assailant is armed, consider it a lethal threat. You need to avoid sudden movements that could make him panic, keep your voice calm, and listen to what he wants and do it," says Patire. And don't allow yourself to think you have a handle on what's going on. "When your brain is hijacked by anger or fear, you may feel that you're being calculating, but these are the times when you're most likely to misread the risks, be lulled into a false sense of security, and make a fatal error."

Mistake #3: Hanging On To Your Valuables

For many of us, our wallet, purse, and cell phone feel like vital organs. And when someone tries to take them, it's natural to get protective. Maybe you beg to keep your bag or deny having any money at all. Lifesaving tip: Get over it. Everything in your bag is replaceable; your life isn't. "Time is always a factor in crime. These guys want to rob you in less than a minute," Patire explains. "And when you prolong the attack by not cooperating, you significantly increase your risk of getting hurt."

This is what to do: Hand over whatever he wants and don't deliver it with attitude. "People often scatter their stuff, which is a huge mistake," says retired San Diego police sergeant Sanford Strong, author of Strong on Defense. "It just angers the criminal, making him more likely to lash out." As you're complying with his request, take mental notes about his height, weight, and physical characteristics so you can report the incident to the police as soon as he's made his getaway.

Go to the next page to find out more about how to protect yourself from attacks.
Mistake #4: Trying To Talk Your Way Out Of Trouble

You've probably heard news reports of people who started chatting with their attacker and survived because of it. "In general, however, you decrease your odds of survival by talking too much," says Patire. "Appealing to your attacker's compassionate side will often enrage him because he knows you're attempting to distract him, and as a result, he'll be more aggressive about getting what he came for."

And if there's more than one person threatening you or your friends, all the more reason not to mouth off, as doing so triggers the pack mentality to kick in. "They're already all revved up, and you could easily provoke a violent response if you show them disrespect," Patire says. "In addition, the last thing you want to do is insult a guy in front of his crew. It becomes a status thing. He's probably been bragging all night about how he is going to rob someone, so to save face, he winds up pistol-whipping you or pulling the trigger."

What to do: "Use one-word answers and when you need to say more, keep it short and specific," says Patire. "Plus, always look him in the face and pretend that you're calm and confident, even if you are scared inside, so he trusts you won't scream or do something irrational."

Mistake #5: Getting Ballsy When Someone Enters Your Home

Home is a safe haven, so when someone dares mess with your nest, a protective instinct usually kicks in. But going into battle mode could be a fatal mistake. "Forget baseball bats and broomsticks," says Strong. "Most of these guys probably have a gun or a knife and have likely hurt people before, so your household item is not going to scare them off." Plus, your aggression could antagonize certain criminals to take much more than your jewelry. "It can trigger a rage response, so this robber suddenly becomes a rapist," Patire says. "He's going to want to show you who's in control so he can get what he came for."

So how can you keep safe? When you hear a suspicious noise, rather than run downstairs or into the next room to confront whoever's there, dial for help, and if you can't talk, throw down the phone so the operator can hear what’s happening. Then break a window and start screaming for help. If anyone else is home with you, shout out for him or her to get up and run for help. "If one person gets out, the criminal loses control," Strong explains. "So that's when he's most likely to leave rather than risk being caught."

Mistake #6: Believing There's Safety In Numbers

If you're in a group that outnumbers your attackers, that doesn't give you license to act tough. "Safety in numbers is a good rule—it certainly makes you less vulnerable—but sometimes bad things happen even when you have people around," says Strong. "And if one guy takes on three or four victims, that's usually a sign that he's either desperate or supremely confident, which means he is probably prepared to hurt you and isn't about to back down."

To keep safe, listen carefully to what this person wants and keep your attention focused on him. If someone in your group starts mouthing off or encouraging everyone to ignore the attacker's demands, say in a firm voice something like "Do what he says or you'll get us all hurt." Hopefully, your tone and words will make your buddy realize that his cocky comeback is actually putting your safety at risk too.

A better idea: Pay heed to those sensations and feelings that sound an internal alarm when something's not right. "Chances are, you've intuitively picked up on the signals that someone is a potential threat—for instance, he seems nervous, he’s sweating, his hands are shaking, or there's a general uneasiness about him—and your gut is trying to tell you that you're walking into a trap," says Post. Don't let your instincts be deafened by your self-assuredness.

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