Danger Learning vs. Safety Learning: They’re Actually 2 Different Things

Not all learning occurs the same way. Take the way our brains decide what is safe vs. what is dangerous. These two processes could not be any more different. Here’s the quick rundown.


Danger Learning

It’s a good thing our brains can learn about danger. If they didn’t, we’d be touching that hot stove over and over again throughout the course of our lives. But it’s important to understand how our brains decide what is dangerous, because this process can also keep us from doing what we want to do in life. The first thing to know about danger learning is that it happens very quickly. It only takes one bad experience for us to develop a fear. Our brains, bless them for wanting to keep us safe, like to err on the side of caution. So one bad experience, one scary news story, one movie scene, or one bit of hearsay at the watercooler is often all our brains need to decide that something is dangerous. If we get food poisoning one night at our favorite seafood restaurant, our brains will very quickly conclude that this seafood restaurant is now a very bad place, never to be visited again. Ever.

The second thing to keep in mind about danger learning is that our brains like to rapidly “generalize” new fears, meaning they like to make us afraid of all things similar to the bad thing. Not only is this one restaurant a bad place, but so are all seafood restaurants. In fact, so is all seafood in general. And maybe all restaurants in general.

And while this process is meant to (and does) keep us safe, it can also leave us with fears that we don’t really need to have. What if seafood is our favorite food? One of the great joys in life? Are we really going to stop eating all seafood because of one or two bad experiences?

We also sometimes get stuck with fears we didn’t actually learn to have. For example, most of us are born with fears of snakes, spiders, and heights, with no prior experience necessary. And in the case of a mental health disorder like OCD, individuals develop random fears that are not based on any bad experiences from the past.

Which brings us to safety learning, or how to reverse a fear…


Safety Learning

Safety learning also occurs with our survival in mind. This means that safety learning occurs much more slowly than danger learning. We should not expect to magically feel safe again after one positive experience. The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth times we visit a seafood restaurant, we will continue to feel fear and anxiety. And yet, our brains WILL eventually change. We just have to push through these initial difficulties, and allow our brains to realize that the past is the past, and seafood restaurants for the most part appear to be safe again. But keep in mind that our new safety learning will NOT rapidly generalize like our learned fears do. If we go to Red Lobster over and over again, our brains may simply decide that Red Lobster appears to be safe. But those other seafood restaurants around town? Not so much. We may have to desensitize ourselves to a few more before the fear completely fades.

Knowing the difference between these two processes can be a good starting point towards making change in your life. Realizing that our brains are overly cautious can help us to realize that some of our fears may not be based on probable or likely threats. And knowing about the slow process that is safety learning can give us the right expectations when we start the work on our fears. It may take a little longer than we want to get rid of a fear, but with a little stamina and motivation, it can absolutely be done.

If you’re looking for help with fears and anxieties in the Pittsburgh area, feel free to contact us. For help outside of the Pittsburgh area, be sure to look up providers in your area on the IOCDF website.