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Becoming Resilient Through Appropriate Awareness

You can avoid most potential threats long before they become a danger to you simply by maintaining an appropriate level of awareness. Awareness of your surroundings will alert you to any changes or threats, and give you maximum reaction time to fight, flee, or take advantage of an opportunity that others may miss. Awareness, like physical fitness, is a skill that you can learn, practice, and improve. You will also need to learn what the appropriate level of awareness will be, and how to apply it to specific situations.

John Dean "Jeff" Cooper was a marine and a firearms instructor who developed an awareness color code chart. In his book Principles of Personal Defense, Cooper noted that the most important tool for surviving a lethal confrontation is not the weapon, or even martial skills, but the combat mindset. According to Cooper, your ability to survive a lethal confrontation depended more on your mental preparation and ability to quickly respond to a real or perceived threat. Cooper’s color code did not specifically address alertness levels, but was more of a way to gauge your ability to react to various levels of threat, and learn how to move from one color level to another, as needed. The chart below shows Cooper’s Color Code, which will be a guide in determining your appropriate level of awareness in various situations.

Condition White: In this state you are completely relaxed and unaware of your surroundings. Many people spend most of their time in this condition staring at their phone screens, listening to music on their headphones, or lulled into their daily routine, unaware of potential threats around them. This condition makes you vulnerable, as you will be unable to respond quickly and effectively to any sudden threats. That is not to say, however, that you should never be in condition white. On the contrary, it is critical for your mental and emotional well-being that you spend time in this condition every day. Make it a point to relax your mind and body through yoga, meditation, reading, or some other form of amusement. Spending time in condition white is critical for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being, as it will lower your stress levels, and help your body and mind rest. Make sure you are in a safe location such as in your home to be in condition white.

Condition Yellow: At this level you are alert, but not under any threat. When in condition yellow, you are aware of your surroundings, but have no identified threat. In this condition in an urban setting, you notice the people around you, their behavior, dress, demeanor, and establish a baseline of what is “normal”. While driving, you notice the vehicles around you, establish a baseline, and note if any vehicle follows you through a series of turns, or drives erratically. When entering a room, you quickly scan it and notice where the exits are, who is in the room, and where the potential threats or weapons are. In a rural setting, you notice the behavior of wildlife, or lack of wildlife, also establishing a baseline of “normal”. In condition yellow, you remain aware of the weather, and any changes to it, and maintain an awareness of where you are, and where you need to go if conditions become threatening. Sudden changes in wildlife behavior could alert you to a potential threat, if you already have established a baseline for their behavior. Condition yellow is appropriate for any time you are outside of your home or safe space, as it does not consume large amounts of energy or add significant stress. Being aware of your environment will prepare you to identify threats early, and potentially avoid them altogether. Even condition yellow will build low levels of stress over time that will negatively affect your physical and emotional health. After weeks or months of quarantine, with a constant stream of bad news from the media, people have built up a lot of pent up stress with no means of releasing it. Be aware of when and for how long you are in condition yellow, you will need to relieve your stress levels even from condition yellow.

Condition Orange: At this stage you have identified a potential threat, and your mind and body are ready to spring into action. The potential threat could be someone who appears to be following you or paying undue attention to you, rustling bushes at night, or anything else that stands out from the baseline of normal you established in condition yellow. This could also be a threat that poses no imminent harm, such as a protest several blocks away. In this condition, you need to be preparing a plan of action, finding exits and how you will get to them, ensuring you have access to a nearby weapon, and planning to spring into action. At this level, you should trust your gut instinct. If something feels out of place, you are better off leaving the area if possible. The rustling bushes may be a squirrel, or it may be a bear. The person following you may intend to harm you, or may simply be traveling the same route as you. There is no harm in never finding out. While in this condition, you must make a point of continuing to scan the area for other threats. People often become fixed on a potential threat, and don’t notice the actual threat coming from a different direction. When you notice someone acting unusually, scan your surroundings to see if that person has an accomplice planning to target you when you are distracted. Criminals often work together, so the threat you see may actually be distracting you from the actual threat. Condition orange is a temporary condition in that you may return to condition yellow once you leave the area, or determine the potential threat is no longer an actual threat. Alternately, you will need to quickly raise your awareness level to condition red once you identify an imminent threat. You should not remain in condition orange for extended periods of time, as your elevated stress levels will wear on you over time. This is one reason service members on extended war zone deployments often experience burnout. Any time you go into condition orange, and especially if you remain there for an extended period of time, make sure you take the time to recover in condition white, once you return to a safe area.

Condition Red: At this level, you have identified an immediate threat, and you must decisively act to counter or evade the threat. People commonly refer to this condition as the “fight or flight” response, as you must do one or the other immediately. At this point, you will not have time to consider your options, and think through all the possibilities. You will need to act on the plan you established in condition orange, and act on it with all your effort. Your body will undergo drastic changes while in this condition. Your heart rate and blood pressure will skyrocket, and you will sweat profusely, even in cold weather. You will experience “tunnel vision” or "target fixation” where your brain filters out anything that is not the immediate threat before you. You will lose your sense of hearing, fine motor skills, and in many cases, bladder and bowel control. Because your brain will “go stupid” you will only be able to react using gross movements that come naturally to you. You will be unable to use skills that you are unfamiliar with, so it is critical that you train and become able to function naturally under intense stress. Police have found that even among officers who shoot proficiently at the range, their accuracy in an actual shooting events drops to approximately one in twenty shots hitting their target even at close range. Many people rarely, if ever, go into condition red. You will want to train ahead of time in condition red to prepare yourself to operate at this level when faced with a real life threat. To train at this level, you will need to decide which skill you want to train on, then mimic stress conditions as closely as you can. For example, practice malfunction drills on your firearm immediately after doing an all-out sprint. You could also practice applying tourniquets and pressure bandages in a dark room with loud angry music playing. You will need to build on your skills, and learn to use them in high stress environments, so that you will not be fumbling around in a panic during a disaster. Once the threat is over, bringing down your heart rate and stress levels will be just as important as going up to this level. When in condition red, people lose the ability to think, and lose awareness of the environment around them. Make a conscious effort to evaluate your situation, scan for any additional threats, and plan your next moves. Even more so than with condition orange, condition red brings on severe emotional and mental stress, which over time will make you ineffective. Make sure you take time to rest and recover after any time that you go into condition red. Staying in condition red for a prolonged period, or going into condition red multiple times without time to recover, could lead to long-term post traumatic stress. You will need to make a concerted effort to relax and entertain yourself during prolonged stress events, or you may become combat ineffective.

Condition Black: While not part of Cooper’s original color code, The U.S. Marine Corps uses this level to indicate that someone has become immobilized by fear. This condition can be deadly, as people become petrified, unable to think, react, and survive. In condition black, you lose all control of your mind and body, and go into shock. One possible explanation for this is called “behavioral inaction”, where the brain sees something new, tries to find a relative memory on how to respond, but can’t. The brain keeps trying to process it, and gets stuck in a loop. This can be deadly, as people may not respond to or escape a threat because they become frozen by panic. You can train to avoid this condition in much the same way as training to remain functional in condition red. Identify what skills you plan to need during a disaster, and practice them in conditions of increasing levels of stress. You can also strengthen your mind by imagining the unimaginable. This doesn’t even need to take any additional time or effort from your day. As you sit in your morning commute, imagine what would happen if the vehicle next to you suddenly tried to ram you off the road. Imagine what that would look like, and how you would react. While sitting in a movie theater, imagine what would happen if a crazed gunman suddenly burst in and started shooting indiscriminately. Imagine what your response would be, picture how you would get to the nearest exit, or how you would confront the shooter. Picturing these various scenarios and how you would react to them will exercise your mind and prepare you to react to future unexpected events. As a society, we have become comfortable in the misguided belief that we are safe and the government will protect us. We can't imagine what war or a prolonged economic depression with widespread civil unrest would look like.

"Denial and inactivity prepare people well for the roles of victim and corpse."
John Leach - Survival Psychology

Awareness serves more than to protect you from threats. By being at the appropriate awareness level, you can actually pick up on opportunities to thrive that others may have missed. Have you noticed that some people tend to have all the luck? Opportunities keep falling in their laps, while others can’t seem to get a break? This is not a coincidence. Some people really do catch lucky breaks more often than mere chance would indicate they should. The good news is that luck doesn’t happen by mere chance. It is a skill you can practice and improve. The harder you work, and the more you practice, the luckier you will become. Much like being in “condition yellow” will alert you to the possibility of threats before they manifest themselves, keeping that same awareness will let you see and take advantage of the many opportunities around you. Every day you are surrounded by an infinite number of opportunities to succeed. The corona virus pandemic has brought with it a whole new buffet of opportunities. Look around you. How can you find ways to create value? Luck doesn't just fall into people's laps; they have to be looking for it. By becoming more aware of the opportunities around you, you can change the world for yourself and those around you.


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