When people think of self-defense, they often picture reacting to a violent assault. However, the ultimate goal of self-defense is actually to protect you from harm before an assault by recognizing and avoiding dangerous situations altogether. Learning to recognize signs of danger gives you the ability to steer clear of situations that might put you at risk. To accomplish this crucial first step you must develop and employ awareness.
Situational awareness is paramount for maintaining your personal safety and security. After all, you can’t avoid a situation you are unaware of. The foundation of situational awareness is learning how to use your complete set of observational skills to scan the elements in any given environment. Develop and hone your senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and the passing of time.
Graduated Levels of Awareness
You will naturally go through a range of different levels of awareness throughout your day based on the type of activity in which you are engaged. These levels can be represented with different colors to better visualize these otherwise intangible states of consciousness.
The lowest level of awareness is represented by the color white. This is a state in which you are basically ignorant of the majority of what is going on around you. This would be anytime that you are relatively unaware, such as when you are sleeping, listening to music with headphones, or watching a movie with the volume up.
Green, representing a state of relaxed awareness, occurs when you feel safe and are able to let your guard down. This is the state you are in when you are secure at home or work, focused on everyday tasks and activities. This state is normal and healthy, and the natural feeling of safety that accompanies it allows your mind to destress and your body to heal.
Yellow represents a state of alert awareness. You are alert for signs of danger, unconsciously scanning and assessing both your external environment as well as gauging your internal radar systems. The situation around you registers as normal, so you feel comfortable and at ease. This is the lowest state you should be in when you are not in a secure location such as your home.
Shifting into a state of heightened awareness is represented by a shift toward orange. This level of response is appropriate to any changes in your environment that increase your exposure to potential threats or dangers, such as traveling through a less safe area or being approached by a suspicious person.
When a possible threat has been identified, requiring a state of intense, focused aware- ness, the scale turns deep orange. Even though you are still working to maintain 360 degrees of awareness, your powers of perception are being directed most at the threat in an effort to determine intention and anticipate what will come next.
As the threat level increases, the orange turns to red, representing an escalation of events that lead you to confirm that the threat is indeed real. With luck, this will occur early enough that you are still able to avoid the situation, either by physically leaving the scene or through passive tactics such as verbal de-escalation or submission.
Deep red represents the phase where an encounter has turned physical. The time for talking or capitulating has passed. Your immediate goal becomes survival either through escape or physical domination of your assailant.
Although you may be fighting for your life, you still need to retain a degree of calmness to avoid slipping into the black. Black represents an amygdala hijack. An amygdala hijack is an overwhelming emotional response in which the stress essentially shuts down your brain, effectively taking you out of the fight.
A simple example of the graduated levels of awareness might look something like this:
Green: Relaxing at home
Yellow: Out for a jog
Orange: See a suspicious jogger
Deep Orange: Suspicious jogger follows
Red: Suspicious jogger attacks
You don’t have to pass through each level sequentially. If a stranger invades your personal bubble, the space around you in which you feel safe, it is best to assume that he has bad intentions and shift directly into a state of focused awareness (red).
While it may seem desirable to maintain a sustained high level of awareness throughout your entire waking day, this is not a very realistic approach. The unfortunate reality is that your brain only has a limited amount of processing power available to you. This limits your ability to pay attention in any given moment, and when you divide your attention across multiple objects or tasks, your awareness further degrades.
Since there is such an incredible amount of data around you all the time, maintaining a constant level of high alert is impractical and unhealthy. Sustained high levels of stress can have harmful effects on your body. It is more realistic to remain at ease, maintaining a relaxed level of awareness, while running a tactical triage program in the background to determine what potential threats may require further attention.
(Editor’s note: Author Joe Varady, loves to tell stories to kids…enjoy and learn about Awareness from this one.)
Self-Defense Story: Child Uses Sword to Defend Home
When I was a kid, I got home from school one day and, as usual, there were no cars in the driveway. My parents owned a jewelry business, and they would often not get home until after the store closed at eight o’clock. I had the house to myself, so I went inside and took a nap. Because it was winter, by the time I woke up a short time later, it was already dark outside. I went to the kitchen to get something to eat and then went to the living room to watch some TV.
So, there I was, about twelve years old, eating my dinner and watching television, when I suddenly heard a low cough. I froze mid-bite. It came from my parent’s bedroom down the hall. For almost a minute I sat there with the spoon in my mouth, not moving a muscle as I strained my ears over the sound of the TV. I had almost convinced myself that it was all just my imagination when I suddenly heard it again, the undeniable sound of a man stifling a cough. Being the owner of a jewelry store, my mother owned a lot of expensive jewelry, so we always set an alarm when we were not at home. However, the alarm had been off since I came in over two hours before. It was all very clear. Someone had slipped in while I was sleeping and was in the process of robbing us when I woke up, trapping him in my parents’ bedroom. That would explain why their bedroom door, which was usually open when no one was home, was now closed.
I had yet to study any sort of martial arts, but I had recently purchased a cheap replica Civil War cavalry sword at a flea market. It was pointy, but it wasn’t sharp. I set down my bowl of food and slipped quietly into my room, emerging a few seconds later. I stood at the end of the hallway with the sword in one hand and nervously flipped the light switch with the other. The hallway lit up, and I quickly moved my free hand to awkwardly reinforce the one holding the sword (a cavalry sword is a single-handed weapon). I assumed a wide stance and braced myself for what was about to happen next. Then I yelled, “I hear you back there! Come on out!”
It was a small house, so the hallway was short. My parent’s room was the last door on the left, only about ten feet away. At first, nothing happened. Then I suddenly heard someone move. Everything shifted into slow motion and my vision narrowed. I heard clear, heavy footsteps cross my parents’ room, and then the doorknob started turning. The door opened and a man with disheveled hair emerged into the hallway. I wouldn’t say that he was angry, but he was definitely not happy. He glared at me.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” my dad asked.
I lowered the sword and breathed a very deep sigh of relief. “I thought you were at work,” I replied sheepishly.
“I came home early because I wasn’t feeling well. You were sleeping, so I didn’t wake you up.” Then it dawned on him what was happening. “So . . . you woke up and thought I was a burglar?” A smile spread across his face, “And what were you planning on doing with that, tough guy?” he asked, pointing to the unsheathed sword at my side. My face flushed. I guess I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. “I can’t wait to tell your mom about this when she gets home,” my dad chuckled as he turned away, shaking his head. “Next time,” he added over his shoulder, “you’d be better off calling the cops.” Then he closed the door and went back to bed.
Having identified a potential threat, rather than doing the smart thing and fleeing the scene or calling for assistance, I thought it was a good idea to arm myself and then . . . do what? Make a citizen’s arrest at sword point? As courageous as that might have been, I was just a kid with a dull sword and no training. What if it had been someone with a gun? Even unarmed, chances are I would have been easily overwhelmed and possibly killed. I knew my mom’s jewelry was insured. I had absolutely no reason to stay in that house. It was a classic case of overestimating yourself and underestimating your attacker. There was also the false sense of power I got from having the sword. In retrospect, it is a good thing it was all that I had. I hate to think of what might have happened if I had had access to a handgun. My dad was right: if I thought there was a burglar in the house, I should have called the cops.
Since we just discussed graduated levels of awareness, this is what mine looked like during the different phases of this encounter:
White: Napping after school
Green: Eating dinner/watching TV
Yellow: Heard a strange noise
Orange: Confirmed the threat
Red: Doorknob turning
Brown: My underwear
The above is an excerpt from The Art and Science of Self-Defense: A Comprehensive Instructional Guide by Joe Varady, Publication Date June 1, 2022, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594398728.