I encourage my students to train mentally with little imagination exercises they can  do when they’re out and about. When you go to a place that isn’t your home look for the exits, look for improvised weapons. When in the presence of other people, gauge their distance and imagine how you might react if they were to suddenly attack you. Look at everybody’s hands. Above all, always be aware of your environment.

Last night, during class, one of my students told me that she had been doing these exercises all the time. Great. Then she asked me a really good question, “isn’t it a little bit paranoid?”

My answer to that, as you could guess, is no.

To me, paranoia is about unjustified fear. In contrast, we work these drills in part to instill a sense of confidence. We aim to remove fear. Imagining a threat is around every corner is paranoia. Asking yourself what you’d do in the event there was a threat around a corner is mental exercise. One is healthy, and the other is not.

Paranoia is particularly a problem if it interferes with your normal life. You may be safer locked in your basement all day – but that’s not healthy. Preparation might point out some changes to your routine which would make you safer, but shouldn’t have you cowering in bunker for the rest of your life.

I live in a really safe neighborhood and have been mocked for locking my doors and owning an alarm. Then somebody tried to break into my house. Locking my doors and turning an alarm on and off are not disruptive in any way to my enjoyment of life. In fact, those two things give me a peace of mind that help me enjoy life better.

I was talking with a woman in Boston where I suggested that women probably shouldn’t jog alone at night on the Esplanade. About 5 women had been attacked and sexually assaulted at gunpoint doing just that. She was indignant, “Well, I fell that women should be able to go any where they want.” Absolutley, I agree with that statement. And I should be able to walk into the roughest neighborhood in the country with $100 bills falling out of my pocket and expect no problems either – but that’s just not realistic. It’s simply about recognizing an existing danger and making better choices.

Sticking your head in the sand and pretending that nobody and nothing would ever harm you is as unrealistic as paranoia, and it’s probably more dangerous.

To me, the two aspects of what we refer to as paranoia (in a non-clinical sense) are unreasonable belief of danger and unreasonable fear of danger. In my classes, we try to inject as much reason as possible. We discuss recent crimes, local crime rates, the differences between TV crime and reality. Nearly all of my students have reported a greater sense of confidence which I equate to less fear. We do not teach paranoia here.

In fact, my new school slogan might be “preparation, not paranoia ™.”

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