January 27

Survival Instinct: Why We Freak Out Over Everything

People have a need for certainty - and that need for certainty is in every human being, certainty that you can avoid pain, certainty that you can at least be comfortable. It’s a survival instinct. Tony Robbins

In 2020, after the pandemic hit, the NY Times published an article titled “The island brokers are overwhelmed.” The piece was a reflection on the increased demand for private islands where the rich could retreat to a life of seclusion to escape from the coronavirus. Pandemics aside, demand for secluded yachts, or, for that matter, secluded islands, is indicative of a much more deep-rooted social and behavioral phenomenon.

In his 2022 book Survival of the Richest: Escape fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, author Douglas Rushkoff describes how the ultra-wealthy are busy making plans to survive apocalyptic events such as climate crises, social unrests, global pandemics, or nuclear holocausts. The sometimes preposterous-sounding plans include escaping to outer space, retreating to secret compounds in Alaska or New Zealand, or leaping into virtual worlds using AI-assisted technologies.

Then again, the top one percent aren’t the only ones planning for escape routes.

Not just the rich

Rewilding is a growing movement, where teachers like Lynx Vilden teach “bushcraft.” They show regular people how to go back to living in the wild, kind of like how we lived during the Stone Age, as a panacea for, and to isolate ourselves from, the ills of modern society.

Whether it’s the super-rich escaping to billionaire bunkers, or regular folks building yurts in the wild, there’s one common thread driving the need to look for escape hatches. It’s a fundamental aspect of the human condition—our instinct to survive, which, in turn, manifests itself as a fear of the unknown.

Survival instinct

When we hear of disasters (natural or man-made) we feel sorrow and pain for those affected. But unconsciously, we also feel a sense of fear.

What if an earthquake or flood affects our community or home?

What if we happen to be in the grocery store when a deranged person starts shooting?

To be honest, these are legitimate fears, and often stem from our survival instinct.

Evolutionarily, our tendency to pay attention to bad things kept us safe. And alive. Our amygdalas are wired to prioritize bad news over good news. Given a choice between reveling in their knife-sharpening skills or running away from an approaching lion, our ancestors always chose the latter. Survival first. Gloating later.

As we modernized, though, the wiring quirk in our brain that gives precedence to bad news over good paved the way for commercial exploitation.  

Bad news sells

Businesses realized early on that bad news sells. Keeping people on the edge, in fear, has proven to be a commercially successful strategy. Case in point: the insurance industry. How else can you explain the existence of the alien abduction insurance policy, a policy that will pay out to your family if aliens were to abduct you? (No, I didn’t just make that up.)

Unfortunately, thanks to media sensationalism and out-of-control social media feeds, we’re exposed to a constant barrage of bad news, which, in turn, trigger our survival instinct indiscriminately. As a result, we’ve normalized the constant feeling of fear and mistrust even when, as in most cases, our survival is under no threat.

It’s okay to be apprehensive and nervous when the lab technician asks a radiologist to take a second look at your mammogram images. But feeling equally mortified at the prospect of showing up at a beach resort (and in Insta pictures) with cracked heels and callused feet? Unwarranted. And futile.

So, what can we do to separate the wheat from the chaff? Can we prepare ourselves to take things in stride without batting an eyelid and save the handwringing and teeth clenching for genuine emergencies? The answer is yes. With some effort.

Here are a few crucial life skills that can keep us calm and help us carry on. Especially when we’re dealing with non-emergent “emergencies.”

Learn to respond, not react

There is a difference between reaction and response.

A reaction is usually unconscious and involuntary. Blaring the horn when someone cuts you off on the road, yelling at your phone when an app won’t load, or berating yourself for finishing the bag of chips as you binge-watched The White Lotus, are all reactions—actions with little thought (or sometimes no thought at all) when provoked by a stimulus.

In contrast, responses are measured. You take stock of the situation, let it sink in, and then decide on a course of action.

When someone cuts you off on the road, you acknowledge the disappointment but decide to let go. May be that person’s having a bad day.

If an app won’t load on your phone, you troubleshoot methodically instead of yelling at your phone.

Acknowledging your weakness for chips, you portion some into a dish before you sit down to watch a show, instead of plonking onto the couch with a Costco-sized bag of chips next to you.

Reactions keep us on the edge. Responses, on the other hand, tend to be more measured.

Obviously, whether you react or respond will depend almost entirely on how mindful of the situation you are. And, to state the obvious again, Mindfulness—the art of paying attention to the present moment — can be cultivated through the practice of meditation.

Define what “enough” means to you

Chasing after every shiny object is bound to result in anxiety and disappointment because there is no dearth of shiny objects for us to hanker after. It does not take long for us to go from a content “let me just scroll on social media” to full-on “my life sucks, why can’t I have a house, body, car, vacation, family, following like she does?”

And if we are lucky enough to get those things, there’s always something else.

Defining our enough means there are fewer things to be hot and bothered about.

Learn new things everyday

As discussed earlier, fear of the unknown can trigger the survival instinct and our fight-or-flight response. That said, it’s impossible to know the kind of problems that are going to come our way. So, here’s the conundrum: how do we prepare when we don’t know what to prepare for?

By getting into the habit of constantly upskilling. It doesn’t matter what you learn, but the very act of keeping our neurons engaged and alive everyday through learning can help our brains calm us down in the face of uncertainty. The content of learning may vary, but the learning process is the same. This can reassure our brains with a case of “been there, done that” and prevent handwringing in the face of uncertainty.

Get perspective

Before flipping out at the first sign of trouble, put it to the 5-year-test. Ask yourself if the problem you are about to lose your head over now will matter five years from today? The answer is almost always “no.”

Perspective comes from knowing we have far too many things we cannot do and permitting ourselves only to do, and worry about, what we can.


Most of us live our life on the edge. Anything can throw us off — a clogged sink, a new iOS update, the weather, or the announcement that your in-laws are moving in with you for the rest of your life. But not all problems are catastrophes. Getting equally overwrought about every little thing that’s gone wrong isn’t healthy. Or fun.

Life’s job is to throw curveballs. Ours is to bat those away gently without getting constantly perturbed. Surprisingly, this can be done.



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