What is situational awareness?
Situational awareness can get you out of a violent confrontation. It is by far the best self-defense technique available. It even outstrips MMA.
So what is it?
What is situational awareness?
Situational awareness is the use of the sensory system to scan the environment with the purpose of identifying threats in the present or projecting those threats into the future.
I know, that sounds like a mouth full. But believe me, every single word in the situational awareness definition is chosen for a reason. I am going to break it down into its component parts.
By the end of the article, you’ll be very clear on its meaning. You’ll also pick up valuable lessons along the way. These lessons can get you out of a violent confrontation one day.
I learned this the hard way.
Since I don’t want you to learn the hard way too, I’m going to spell it out step-by-step.
Also, stick around till the end, as I’ll be giving you the first lesson in achieving heightened awareness. So here goes…
Principle 1 – Use Your Sensory System
Did you notice in the definition, I said ‘use of the sensory system’ to scan your environment. I didn’t say use your senses.
What is the sensory system?
Your sensory system uses various collection tools to gather information from your immediate surroundings. It then sends that information to your brain.
This doesn’t only happen through our five senses. You also have a sense of balance, temperature, pain and more. You even have internal senses. Some say you have around 25 senses!
This simply means using your senses to scan your environment. We are now focusing on how your sensory system gathers information.
Start to be aware of your surroundings. What can you see? What time of day is it? Can hear any noises? Can you feel anything? Feeling can include temperature as well as pressure. You can use all of your senses. What does your sense of balance tell you about your surroundings?
I created a guide to teach you how to use your senses effectively.
Now, you might think you’re already constantly aware of your environment. Sadly, this is not always true.
How many times have you walked down a street in a daydream? Or worse, looking at your cell phone?
This lack of awareness makes you a target.
OK, back to the situational awareness definition…
The next part of the situational awareness definition is ‘with the purpose of identifying threats in the present’.
Just being hyper aware alone will not magically make you safer. You can’t take visual note of every leaf on every tree, while listening intently to every cat’s purr and car engine noise, while feeling the breeze through your hair. This level of sensory input will completely overwhelm you, over stimulus is also the path to paranoia.
The trick is to get the balance right. More on this later.
It’s worth noting that your situational awareness is not only there to draw your attention to threats. You may also identify opportunities to enrich your life.
How much stimulus do you need to identify threats within the environment and still relish your day? The trick is to focus your awareness on what might be considered a potential threat. Everything else should become background noise.
This takes the correct intention and attention. Try to imagine that situational awareness is a continuum, it’s like the rev gauge in a car. Instead of running from 0 to 5000 revs, awareness runs from comatose to a state of hyper-vigilance.
You need to find a comfortable baseline of awareness that will alert you of danger and not rob your quality of life.
As you step out of your door consciously, set your baseline of awareness.
Projecting Threats Into the Future
Just being aware, and looking for threats is not enough. Unless of course you are being attacked by a barbarian in a loincloth sporting a big club.
I have to be honest. Most attacks don’t happen like this. Criminals don’t want to be seen.
Until it is too late.
This is why the situational awareness definition includes the words ‘and projecting them into the future’.
This stage happens in your mind and gut. Remember my description of the sensory system? I mentioned how you use your senses to gather information. Your sensory system then sends those messages to the brain. What happens after that?
It’s time for an assessment. Did you see anything suspicious? Could something you are seeing now become dangerous later?
An example could be, when driving home, the car behind you looks suspicious.
OK, what does suspicious look like?
Picture this. You’re driving home. You look into your rear view mirror. There is a car that has followed you for a few blocks. Nothing strange about that. However…
There are three guys in the car.
Still nothing strange.
There’s none of the casual banter you would expect to see between three guys in an enclosed space. They’re sitting in silence and looking intensely at you.
An internal alarm bell starts ringing. This might be a thought, a flutter in your stomach or very simply your skin starts to crawl. You might very well be in danger.
What just happened in that example?
Firstly, through your situational awareness you became aware of something. Since you are looking for threats, something drew your attention to the car behind you. Next, your mind made an assessment and your body responded with a message. People acting like that look dangerous.
In other words you projected the picture in your mind into the future.
This brings us to the next principle.
Look For Anomalies
I’ve heard many self defense practitioners say that focusing on situational awareness will make you paranoid. There is some truth in that.
If so, how can you use situational awareness as a self-defense tool? Surely it’ll just make you feel overwhelmed and paranoid? Paranoia distorts the ability to discern danger from an imagined threat.
This is true. You can’t constantly be scanning your environment actively looking for threats.
Instead you can look out for anomalies. Spotting an anomaly simply means to look for a pattern interrupt.
Something out of place.
If we go back to the example of you driving home and you see a car following you. What made you pay attention? Was it the fact that a car is going the same route as you? I doubt that. Cars can drive behind me for ten minutes at a time. No alarm bells.
In this case, however, something was out of place. An anomaly. A pattern interrupt. Four guys don’t sit quietly in a car and stare at you for no good reason.
Use your awareness to pick up anomalies.
Examples of anomalies:
- You are walking in a shopping center and you hear and alarm
- You hear shots fired
- Three guys enter a store, one glances up at the CCTV system, lowers his hat and stands at the door
- You hear footsteps running towards you
- You notice a sudden shadow change
Why is Situational Awareness Important?
I’ve been to literally hundreds of crime scenes. Crime victims often say that the criminal seemed to come out of nowhere.
My entry into the world of situational awareness is a case in point. One day I arrived home from the gym, thoughts far away from the real world.
I put down my bags in the kitchen, and turned around to face a large silver pistol. “where did these guys come from”? I remember thinking. Later I established that the bad guys had watched me drive in and took their time to sneak up on me.
Believe me, criminals are not monks that appear out of nowhere. They are not David Blaine.
They are people just like you and me.
Situational awareness helps you identify the little signs that something is wrong ahead of time. What do you think those crime victims would have done had they detected the criminals before they were attacked? Being aware would have bought them time.
Time buys you distance.
You are driving toward a traffic light. In front of you are some suspicious looking characters waiting for you expectantly. As you get closer to them, you have less time to react. Being aware of them ahead of time gives you time to react.
Distance buys you time. Time buys you distance.
When you have time, you can prepare yourself for a confrontation. With time you can:
- Accept you are going to go through a difficult or violent confrontation
How to Improve Your Situational Awareness
Convinced yet? The question is how can you improve your situational awareness?
Is it as simple as flipping a switch, or does it need training?
To help you out, here is a situational awareness exercise to get you started.
Pick a place or a route that you know well. It may be your commute home from work, the walk to your kid’s school, or if you are on Covid lockdown, then a stroll through your garden.
Your mission is to spot something that you have never seen before and write that thing down. When you do this, take note of how you are feeling and what you are thinking. This will assist in establishing your awareness baseline. Here are some tips that may help you on your mission:
- Try consciously looking from right to left
- Try approaching the route from another direction
- Imagine that you are a foreigner who is totally new to the space. How would you see the environment and what would draw your attention?
This is just to whet your appetite. If you want to take this further, read my guide here. Use the guide as the first step in your situational awareness training. If you want to really hone your senses, work on one exercise at a time.