To all the young ladies — follow your gut.

When I say follow your gut, I’m not talking about following a whim for a recipe or eloping out of high school.

I’m talking about that feeling in the pit of your stomach when someone does something that makes you uncomfortable; I’m talking about that little voice in the back of your head that screams something doesn’t add up here.

Let me give you some context.

At the beginning of the year, I picked up a part-time job at Country Charm in the Muncie Mall. One day, my shift ended before the mall closed, so I decided to walk around for a bit. I called my grandmother while I checked Macy’s for some clearance deals.

After we got off the phone, I started walking to the other side of the mall. I had parked in the back lot near what is now the new Panera Bread building. In order to get there, you have to walk past the shoe department and JCPenny’s toward the nail salon. It’s a short expanse of hallway that is always empty.

My coworkers had warned me not to park on that side of the mall at night because it was dangerous. I guess I didn’t believe them.

About halfway through my walk, I felt some unease, like eyes were on my back. I noticed a man, probably in his mid 40s, trailing close behind me. The only detail I remember about him is that he wore a letterman jacket.

He must be a mall walker, I thought. I eased up my pace a bit to let him pass.

He slowed, too.

I dipped into the rest area at the corner across from Victoria’s Secret, thinking he would enter, too, if he were following me. But there weren’t any people there, so I quickly continued my walk. And, there he was.

He’s just a mall walker, I kept telling myself. You’re just overreacting, I thought.

But something felt wrong.

My heart thumping, I scanned the stores as I passed them for an open space with several people inside.

I called a friend. She asked me what was wrong — I rarely call my friends unannounced like that.

Keep talking to me, I told her.

We chatted for a bit as I passed storefront after storefront. I kept hoping the man would stop or turn into another store. He never did.

My last chance — the shoe department — came into sight. There was no way I would be walking down that back portion of the mall alone with this man still trailing behind me.

I dipped into the department and kept talking on the phone. After a few minutes, I decided the coast was clear, so I left the department and headed toward exit. The man rounded that corner within seconds.

I made a beeline for the shoe department once again.

I tried to tell myself he was leaving and that I could get to my car. But if he turned and pursued me, what could I do? I didn’t have any pepper spray or a stun gun. Even though I have eight years of martial arts training, I was taught to avoid dangerous situations as much as possible. And, what if it wasn’t only him waiting for me?

I asked the girl at the cash register if she’d call security to escort me outside. While we waited, I mentioned I needed pepper spray. The can I carried as a freshman had a broken nozzle. She motioned toward a small selection.

Yes, they sold pepper spray in a shoe store.

The security guard arrived and walked me out. He said he’d watch the tapes and report back to me later. I told him it wasn’t a big deal — I was probably worrying too much.

Three days later, the security guard visited me at Country Charm. He told me if security saw that man in the mall again, he would be banned, because he was “definitely” following me.

I wonder what would’ve happened if that man had caught me alone that night. I could’ve been mugged, raped or killed. I’ll never know, thank God.

According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime.

We live in a small, rural area, you say. It’s safer here, you assure yourself.

But it’s never impossible.

It’s not healthy or plausible to be scared all your life. Regardless, we should always stay aware. And when we do have that feeling that something isn’t right, we shouldn’t ignore it.

To all the young ladies, and to all the young men, please follow your gut in uncomfortable situations. If something feels off, it probably is.