Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do You Perceive Life as a Threat or a Challenge?

Part I: How you act on and react to your life starts with how you look at it.

Key points

  • Whether one adopts a threat or challenge mindset can determine their life's trajectory.
  • The threat reaction is grounded in survival instinct, while a challenge response is more conscious.
  • The key to shifting from a threat instinct toward a challenge response is to accept, understand, and respond positively to a perceived threat.
Pixabay, used with permission
Pixabay, used with permission
Source: Pixabay, used with permission

How you act on and react to your life starts with how you look at it. I have found that a simple distinction lies at the heart of whether you adopt a mentality of negativity, fear, scarcity, and avoidance or a mindset of optimism, courage, abundance, and opportunity. Do you perceive your life as a threat to avoid or a challenge to pursue? Whether you view your life as either a threat or a challenge sets into motion a diametrically opposed cascade of thoughts, emotions, and actions that will dictate how you approach your life and what direction your life goes.

The problem is that whether you respond to your life as a threat or a challenge is initially driven by your deeply ingrained instincts. The threat instinct (really the survival instinct), which has developed from billions of years of evolution, is triggered instantaneously to protect you from the perceived danger: You experience visceral and dramatic emotions, including fear and anger; your body is mobilized through powerful physiological changes that were designed to help you survive; and your focus narrows and your thinking quickens to ensure that you pay attention solely to the presenting threat and can act quickly to mitigate it.

As I emphasized in a previous article, this reaction served humans well in primitive times when we were faced with threats that were obvious and immediate. Back then, there was no other choice but to respond immediately and urgently if we wanted to have a chance of survival. However, due to the amorphous nature of so many aspects of our lives today, this defensive posture would more than likely decrease your chances of survival or successful navigation of your life. The painful irony of the threat instinct is that it once ensured our safety and well-being (not to mention the future of humanity), but today can actually harm us and make our lives far worse.

Responding to the Threat

It is unrealistic to expect that you will never experience life with a threat instinct again. We would all love to be cool, calm, and collected when faced with life’s ups and downs (especially the downs!), but that’s rarely the case, at least initially. Because the threat reaction has been wired into our brains through millions of years of evolution, some feelings of threat are an inevitable part of living life fully. As such, the presence of the threat reaction when faced with life’s vicissitudes is less important than whether or not you continue to react to it the same way our primitive ancestors did or you are able to let go of it and shift to a challenge orientation.

Recognize the threat. The first step in making the shift from a threat reaction to a challenge response is to recognize that your threat instinct is being triggered. Often, our threat reactions are so strong and ingrained that we have no conscious awareness of them; fight-or-flight kicks in and we’re swept away by its immediacy and intensity. Without recognizing its presence, there is no way for you to engage your evolved brain and stop your outdated threat instinct from continuing to control your response.

Gaining awareness of your threat instinct when it happens isn’t magic; it’s just a matter of having your “radar” when unexpected or unwanted events arise in your life. Just by learning about the differences between your threat instinct and a challenge response, you are better attuning yourself to occasions when your threat instinct is activated. At first, you may not be conscious of your threat instinct going off until after the situation has already passed. Over time, however, as your sensitivity to your threat instinct increases, you will find that your recognition will move closer and closer to the “fork in the road” of threat vs. challenge until one day when you are confronted with a difficult situation, you will have an epiphany: “My threat instinct is kicking in and I can now do something about it.”

Accept the threat. The next step in overcoming your threat instinct is to accept it as normal. How normal, you ask? So normal that billions upon billions of human beings over hundreds of thousands of years have experienced the same reaction before you. Unfortunately, the threat itself isn’t the only problem when you experience a threat instinct in reaction to life. There are three things that can exacerbate the impact that it has on you:

  1. Allowing the threat instinct to consume you and drive your thinking, emotions, and reactions. Relying on this primitive and outdated instinct to help you navigate modern-day life will likely not serve you well.
  2. Attempting to ignore or distract yourself from your threat reaction in the hope that it will just go away. The fact is that your threat instinct has evolved to keep the “alarm bells” ringing to ensure you take appropriate action. Instead, it tends to persist and intensify if not actively staunched. Because of this, a threat reaction tends to be big and powerful like an 800-pound gorilla in the room. That means that you won’t be able to ignore it for long and, by then, it might be too late to resolve the cause of the reaction in a positive way.
  3. Not realizing that your perception of the situation is through the lens of the threat instinct. Not only do you experience the difficulties of the situation and the unpleasantness of the threat instinct, but you feel terrible for feeling it in the first place. It’s bad enough to have to deal with life’s trials and tribulations and the threat instinct on their own; it’s even worse to then beat yourself up about feeling as if you are weak for succumbing to it. These feelings can create a psychological and emotional vicious cycle that compounds the impact of a threat instinct many times over. You feel bad about feeling bad which makes you feel even worse and that increases the perception of the threat and the harm that is incurred.

When your threat instinct is triggered, cut yourself some slack by accepting it as a natural—though not ideal—reaction. This acceptance takes the pressure off of this threat feeling, lessens your internal turmoil and conflict, and makes the threat less menacing and more realistic. By not adding the insult of a cacophony of negative thoughts and emotions to the injury of the threat instinct itself, not only will feel better, but it takes away much of the power that the threat has over you and frees up energy to put you in a better position to shift to a challenge orientation.

Understand the threat. With your threat instinct in its proper perspective and its psychological and emotional volume turned down, you are now in a position to begin the transition from threat reaction to challenge response. This shift starts by understanding the precise nature of the situation and what makes it so threatening. Common threats to our lives include our careers, finances, relationships, and health. When you have a clear understanding of what is threatening you, it becomes something more tangible, more clearly defined, and more manageable, rather than an amorphous feeling of threat to your survival.

Difficult life situations often create a “double whammy” when it comes to the threat instinct. There are obvious threats such as serious health issues or financial ruin. But these overt threats often trigger internal “crises of self” that threaten our perceptions of ourselves. For example, losing your job can jeopardize your view of yourself as a competent person. An illness can prompt existential worry about your mortality. To move from threat to challenge, you must understand and address both levels of the threat that are present.

Respond to the threat. A strong indication of your transition from threat to challenge is your ability to resist this deeply ingrained instinct that has governed our responses t for as long as humans have walked the Earth. If you can recognize that fork in the road and take the “good road” rather than the “bad road,” you will score a big victory in your shift to a challenge response and your ability to confront difficult life situations in a positive and constructive way. Developing the ability to recognize this fork in the road is so important that it’s used by the military which labels the fork in the road “Courses of Action” (COA) development in which the goal is to assess risk, identify possible outcomes, and then choose a COA that best diminishes the threat.

Most often, taking the “good road” when confronted by a difficult life situation begins by not doing anything. This pause from the immediacy, intensity, and urgency of the just-presented life event enables you to stop the threat instinct before it can fully take hold of you and before it does any harm.

You can then decide what is the best “big picture” road to take in addressing the situation. This is perhaps the greatest challenge you will face. A threat instinct causes us to focus on the most present and obvious signs of the threat. In other words, we become so absorbed by the “trees” that we can’t see the “forest.” As I’ve noted many times in previous writings, that worked for our ancestors, but it won’t work when faced with the complexities of life in the 21st century. The goal of responding to life’s difficulties as a challenge involves seeing and responding to both the trees (the immediate threat) and the forest (your life). A response that is calm, deliberate, reasoned, and solutions-based will accomplish that goal.


Morse, Janice M. PhD (Nurs), PhD (Anthro) Responding to Threats to Integrity of Self, Advances in Nursing Science: June 1997 - Volume 19 - Issue 4 - p 21-36

Guitouni, Adel, et al. “Multiple Criteria Courses of Action Selection.” Military Operations Research, vol. 13, no. 1, Military Operations Research Society, 2008, pp. 35–50,

More from Jim Taylor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Jim Taylor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today