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Dear Mr. Farago,

Regarding my comment in your thread on Self-defense Tip, here is a somewhat expanded explanation:

First off, I can claim no true expertise in these matters beyond my own study and experience. I’m a former infantry team leader, current psychology student, so this is really the intersection of my academic study and military experience. I’ll try to explain the terminology as I go along, please bear with me if I miss some.

I’d like to disabuse the average gun owner of the aspiration to the sort of extreme watchfulness you find in career law enforcement and military veterans. Quite simply, this is the result of trauma, and the average civilian does not have and should not want that sort of thing. The phenomenon is known as hyper-awareness and is considered by the mental health profession to be a symptom of PTSD. By itself, it is not a mental disorder, but it is an indicator of trauma, it is what happens to normal brains under stress (I’ll get to the mechanism in a moment). The stress or trauma has to either be very large, or very repeated (we call the latter training).

Our brains are efficiency machines, which means they take shortcuts. When you go out to your car, you do not so much see your car as you remember it. You’ve seen it a million times, your brain fills in the gaps, and on you go. We all do this constantly, unless something interrupts that normal flow, and trauma is what does it. Extreme repetition in training can help build neural pathways for this sort of thing, but the best way is for an extremely traumatic event to bypass normal higher thinking, which happens in the forebrain, with the midbrain, which is the source of instinct. Basically, the more primitive sections of our brains have the ability to get around our higher brain function. This is a survival mechanism.

When a bear shows up, your forebrain may want to think of all the things it knows about bears, but the midbrain dumps five grams of adrenaline into your bloodstream and shrieks “RUN!” Trauma creates a new overriding cutout in this primitive section of the brain, a deep and instinctual terror of being surprised which results in constant watchfulness. This has its advantages in a violent conflict, but most of the time, it is a giant pain in the ass. Take it from me, hyper-awareness in day-to-day life is fairly exhausting.

So to sum up the point, absent a serious personal tragedy, extreme watchfulness is neither likely nor particularly desirable for the average person. Your brain is not going to let you be on guard all the time, and that is a good thing for your mental health. The question then becomes what you can do to increase your ability to respond in a violent situation.

Let me start here by explaining some terms, Conditions White, Yellow and Red. I really don’t know where they come from, I learned them in a PSD class in the Army, and I’ve seen them in several books since then. Basically, White is unaware, focused on your task at hand. This is how most of us spend most of our days. Yellow is guarded, watchful. Think walking to your car at night through a bad part of town. Red is imminent violent action. Your goal in self defense should be to learn to enter condition yellow at the appropriate times, and practice it enough that it becomes habit. It takes work, but the work is mostly mental.

It’s been talked about on the site several times about high-risk times in the daily routine. Entering/exiting a vehicle. Gas stations, that sort of thing. If you’re serious about this sort of thing, train yourself to be consciously watchful as you go to your car. Look around first, approach the car at an angle that allows you to see behind it, check your six again after unlocking the car, before you get in. Use your weak hand to operate the key and door, and re-lock the door once you get in. When you arrive somewhere, don’t turn off your car immediately, look about first, then kill the engine, unlock the door, get out, look around again, lock up (weak hand), then be on your way.

Your goal is not to be constantly guarded, but to slip into that condition yellow at the high-risk times, then back into white. What you consider to be “high-risk” may vary, but much like carrying a weapon, this sort of mental training only works if you do it all the time. Murphy’s Law has a way of catching you when you are in a rush, or distracted.

Lastly, one needs to learn to act when encountering a potentially violent situation. The first thing is detection. You will not (hopefully) be precipitating the violence, so you are already behind the curve. You need to learn to recognize the situation and orient yourself to it. I like to think of this as a condition Orange. I’ve noticed a potential problem, and I’m maneuvering to be ready in an advantageous position in case something goes badly. Like prostate cancer, early detection is key, but you should still be ready to do yourself some good even if surprised.

My original comment was in response to a story about a confrontation at a cigar shop titled “Self Defense Tip: Don’t just sit there”. Good advice, and if I may critique the author, his problem is that he was still in condition white, in his comfort zone, and not thinking in terms of violence until it was too late. A better response would have been to immediately become more watchful when a belligerent man showed up, then to get up and put himself in a useful position once the yelling started.

Keep in mind, this is the sort of thing that you’ll probably do ten thousand times without ever once having to actually be violent. But if the worst should come about, it will save your ass. The rest of the time, it’s just inconvenient. Your brain will want to take shortcuts, tell you that the situation isn’t going to escalate, you don’t need to worry. Your rational brain is lazy. You have to consciously override it, and make that a habit.

Most of the self-defense discussion on this site is about what happens in condition Red. Well, I’ll tell you what happens. Everything goes wrong, nothing works as planned, and your brain stops working correctly. You operate on pure instinct and training. All the armchair theorizing beforehand won’t be of any use at all, but being on your feet behind cover with a free hand will be. People want to debate the best gun/caliber/accessory all day, but that is the smallest part of self defense. Your weapon is more reliable than you are.

What is important is that you be able to recognize threats and respond to them. And the ground work of that is to “over-react” to thousands of potential threats. It may seem weird, it may be tiring. Carrying a gun gives you the tool, but mental preparedness will allow you to utilize that tool if you have to. Just realize that there is no magic technique, no video that you can watch, no training course you can take that will provide you with this skill. You have to do it, every day, every month, every year, forever.

I’ll be happy to answer questions, but be advised, the answer may well be “I have no idea”.


(Formerly Sgt.) J.S. Grabow, a.k.a. “Tarrou”

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  1. Very good read with a realistic point. We covered the topics of memory functions during my Introduction to Psychology class last spring and it reminded me that the most basic rule of self discipline (awareness) is always the best bet. One simple exercise is to see what you observe in the midst of routine. (How many people were standing in line at the post office? Count blue jackets at the grocery store) and learn to use observation as a tool. There is a noticeable difference between sight and vision.
    As for the task being mentally draining, yes it is. This is where I like to keep ‘time and place’ in mind. The color code system is good, and it really does a decent job of illustrating a message.
    Thank you Tarrou, this is one article on the subject that will stand out.

  2. Well written! I would add to practice remembering those details. If you find yourself in a bad situation, you will have to provide them to the police.

    I realized a few years back I was not remembering things like I used to and I’m not that old. I noticed I no longer exercised my memory as much as before. I became lazy. I mean who dials a phone number from memory any more. So remember those details as you observe them.

  3. Good explaination Tarrou. Cookies on the bottom shelf. I too am a combat veteran but I do not have the psychology background. I have studied condition white, yellow, red, and even black through the teachings of men like LTC Dave Grossman, Gavin DeBecker and the like. I certainly hope MY hyper awareness is due to experience and training and not PTSD.

    • Hyper-awareness is not PTSD, but it is one symptom of it (there are dozens of other symptoms, and you need ten total for a diagnosis of the disorder). In any case, it’s the sort of thing that requires either pain or fear to imprint on you strongly enough to persist through years of non-dangerous life. It’s why Basic Training involves so much “smoking”. It’s not enough to teach someone WHY they need to stay awake on watch, they have to associate sleep with pain on a non-rational level.

  4. My thanks for all the kind words, and apologies that my post was so long. I found it difficult to say everything I wanted to concisely enough. I should take this opportunity to acknowledge my influences in this area. Drill Sergeant Lee (PAIN IS HOW YOU LEARN!), Grossman and De Becker of course, the neuroscience of Harris, the psychological work of Haas, Nielsen, Becker, Powers and many others. For those who have read Grossman, he has a great many brilliant points, but one must remember his work is descriptive rather than scientific. Unfortunately, this is a section of human behavior that is basically impossible to do true experiments in, meaning all of our data is extremely subjective. There’s a very bright line to be drawn between what works and what we actually know. On this site, I think “what works” is the goal.

    • @Tarrou:

      First off, great post!

      Just wondering if you have seen or read the books in the “Mind Hacks” series. Or, “Your Brain: The Missing Manual”. I have read them and also went through all the exercises and its amazing how your mind works without you knowing. I also watched “Brain Games” on the History Channel and their episode discussing how we are all bad witnesses to crime gave new light to eye witness testimony and how the most ardent believer of what they saw, was way off versus the person who was unsure who was mostly correct.

      I remember seeing an experiment they did with some olympic archer and how they were able to proove that at the moment just before releasing the arrow, the brain completely shuts off for a split second.

      How our brain works and reacts to various stimulous has always amazed me — more so now that my Mom has aged and she has some Dementia. How the brain helps and fails us just amazes me.

      • I’ve not seen any of those shows, but from a scientific standpoint, we are only beginning to describe the capabilities of the mind.

  5. Excellent post. Smart observation on condition ‘yellow’.

    When I concentrate on a task, especially as I age, the more unaware I am of what’s going on around me. I cannot maintain ‘Yellow’ and be productive. At work, co-workers know they can get me to jump when my eyes are glued to my screen and I’m coding and they yell “BOO!”

    Same thing if I’m deep in thought while walking or jogging with a podcast in my ears. I’m often as defenseless as a deaf and blind lame rabbit.

  6. An excellent letter cum posting.

    Yesterday I walked with in breathing distance of two cops carrying a full size 1911. I was just the grey haired guy walking his coonhounds in the park. They didn’t even bat an eyelash. That’s the way you want to be — a ghost quickly forgotten.

    Too many people choose the wrong role model for their self defense posture. With a few exceptions we are not soldier or LEOs. Our job is to protect ourselves and those close to us. We do not and should not seek to become everybody’s first responder. We help maintain civil society by protecting ourselves and not the general population. We hire other people to do that. Private citizens should act like covet operators and fly under the radar whether armed or not. All that takes is be aware of your environment and you can do that at any set alert condition. Situational awareness is not the same thing as running around in condition yellow. Cops and military forces do it all the time without being on a hair trigger.

  7. “Let me start here by explaining some terms, Conditions White, Yellow and Red. I really don’t know where they come from, I learned them in a PSD class in the Army, and I’ve seen them in several books since then.”

    The “color code” was created by Col. Jeff Cooper in the late ’70s:

    Anyone with an interest in armed self-defense, hunting, or any of the shooting sports would do well to read Cooper’s commentaries ( IMO, they’re often educational and occasionally amusing.

  8. I try not to be paranoid to the extreme, but I do try to be aware of my surroundings. I do become more alert and more paranoid in bad sections of cities.

  9. Hyper awareness becomes part of your brain and life. I, too, am a combat veteran. I am constantly on guard. The only way I can really let my guard down, unfortunately, is to beat it aside with alcohol. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is unhealthy. Even though the last fire fight I was in was a good 18 months ago, I am still constantly feeling like i’m about to get ambushed or jumped. This feeling is probably going to stay with me for the rest of my life. It did with my grandfather, who was an Airborne ranger way back in the day. I remember going into town with him to get ice cream when I was about ten or eleven, and when we got out of the car, I watched him look around and scan the area. Especially the rooftops. I asked him what he was looking for, and and simply said “People who are looking for me.”

    That being said, there is something called situational awareness. This is different from condition yellow. You can look around you and notice things. Theres a difference between looking and seeing. Its easy to make a habit of scanning your area and then thinking about what you actually see. It takes a little practice but its real easy once you make it a habit. That will save your life just as well as acting under the impression that you’re going to be attacked, every day, no days off. And much less stressful.

    • I feel you brother. If it helps, in time you’ll integrate it better into your life, but as of this writing it still hangs about for me, six years after. It was probably three or four years before I tapered off the extreme edginess. I owe a lot to my fellow vets in the VFW and MOPH, they’ve been invaluable in helping me learn to adjust. And yes, I drank quite a bit myself in those days. Less now.

  10. I was taught a fourth mental state: black. If you are not mentally prepared for a dangerous situation then you can enter a mindless state of panic. That is, if you are sitting around in condition white and suddenly a bear jumps at you completely unexpected and you’ve never been around bears and never thought about how to defend against them, you’re likely to go into black. You flail and act on pure adrenaline. Being in yellow and then ramping up through orange and red helps you think clearer and react more effectively.

    • Now that you mention it, I was taught that, too. The Color Code system is all about escalation. You’re exactally right.

  11. There’s a lot to be said about Condition: Yellow. Typically we aren’t in such a state of readiness, combat veterans and active duty officers excepted, and there’s benefits and drawbacks to such a state. The fact that you’re always looking for trouble sometimes makes you look like trouble. I do not let that deter me but it is something to be aware of socially.

    Nicely addressed. I was drafting a post, even longer if you believe it, on the same subject.

  12. This post caught my attention as I am what many “sheepdogs” regard as a “sheep” who would like to be better able to defend myself. I recently bought two firearms for self defense, a Mossberg pump action shotgun, to which I added a tactical stock and an 18″ barrel for easier handling in the house, and a Springfield XD 9mm handgun. I started going to the range and quickly realized that the guns were meaningless if I didn’t know how (or when) to use them.

    To Tarrou’s point on knowing when to move between yellow and white, and to extend it a bit to know how to recognize when slipping into red is called-for, it would be great for the sheepdogs among you to recommend some materials wherein I could find a list of conditions for when condition yellow is called-for, some exercises (mind games, if you will) on changing alertness conditions, and signals by which one should recognize the slide into condition red.

    All this probably sounds silly to folks who have lived with these conditions, but for those of us who have lived safe and comfortable lives but believe vigilance is warranted in these times, it would be very helpful.

  13. Maintaining “Condition Yellow” is as easy as looking both ways when crossing the street. It’s a habit, and a fairly easy habit to build. The hard part is turning awareness to appropriate action.

  14. Thank you, Tarrou, for the outstanding post, and to the others, military and LEO, who have experienced same, and thank you again for your service, protecting our families and our freedom.

    Second Frank on his request – any current courses or books/DVDs that you all might suggest that focus specifically on the nuts and bolts of situational awareness, and how-to’s, drills, etc? Coopers stuff is good- a bit wordy, and worth the reading on all, but looking for a few more key drills to get started to practice for SA, like the couple tips above.

  15. The commonly used definitions are White/unaware, Yellow/aware, Orange/alert, Red/action, Black/panic. The first four come from Col. Cooper’s book Principles of Personal Defense. The first time I heard of Condition Black was in a Massad Ayoob course 20 years ago. I think Mas added that to the “codes” and there’s been disagreement over whether “Black” was in or out ever since.

    The Homeland Security color code levels were inspired by Cooper’s color codes, if everyone hadn’t figured that out already. Nobody in the news media ever figured that out and DHS never bothered to explain it to the public either.

    Observations from teaching armed citizens the past 20 years, and running lots of lots of force on force scenarios: It’s difficult to stay in a continuous Condition Yellow and do any task other than guard duty. You can’t write code, repair a car, balance your checkbook or anything that requires uninterrupted thought and stay aware of your surroundings. That’s why you need armed friends, locks, dogs, and other things to detect, delay, deny and deter threats so you have time to make that mental shift.

    What I see most often in scenarios is a disconnect between Condition Orange and action, because everyone takes gun classes that emphasize that the only “action” on the list is draw and engage, when the right action to most Orange situations involve the feet (move to a better position, including leaving) or the ears and mouth (communication). Instead what people do is continue on doing what they were doing, waiting for Orange to become Red, when they can do what they’ve trained to do. It’s only after we back up the scenario and point out that had they used feet, mouth and ears earlier, that they wouldn’t have had to shoot or wouldn’t have gotten shot, most but not all of the time.

    • Excellent comment, wish I’d have included that. I was trying to make that very point, but I don’t think I did it as well.

  16. Thank you, Tarrou, for a brilliant post. You put a lot of excellent, thought provoking material into a succinct and well organized essay. I’ve copied it for future reference in my training materials archive, I hope that you don’t mind. I assure you that proper attribution will be made.

    I especially appreciated this; “Your weapon is more reliable than you are.”. How true. Folks need to remember that the individual is the weapon system, everything else is just a tool.

    I also appreciated Ralph’s statement above; “Maintaining “Condition Yellow” is as easy as looking both ways when crossing the street. It’s a habit, and a fairly easy habit to build. The hard part is turning awareness to appropriate action.”. Generally, throughout the day I wander between White and Yellow. At any given moment there are so many factors and sensory inputs to analyze. It’s fortunate that we’ve evolved to the point where much of the mental housekeeping regarding basic survival is done on autopilot. That said, training, situational awareness and sharp senses are the key to knowing when to trip off the autopilot and go to manual control.

  17. I’ll join the chorus of “well done’s” here.

    I’ll add that the development and maintenance of a condition-yellow awareness level can come with practice. While my closest relationship to military service is a few weeks in JROTC in the 60’s, and with LE is more than a decade in private security in downtown Houston and 20 years working around the “guests” of TDCJ-ID, I did learn to maintain a condition yellow awareness. The hazards of walking around downtown Houston at 0100 hours are real. And “trusties” cannot be fully trusted.

    But it does take practice – conscious repeated practice. Learning to play some version of “Kim’s Game” can help toward this. And remembering that things can go wrong rapidly anywhere at any time.

    And one more thing – thank you for your service, sir.

  18. Though I may not be LEO or military I still hear the phrase “you look like you’re casing the joint” more than I’d like. I make an effort to be aware and am trying not to be so obvious about it these days. It seems like most people walk around in a haze and have no urge to notice what’s not directly in front of them. How many times have you seen a friend from across the room and had them not notice you until you were within spitting distance?

    It also bothers me being a passenger in a car…. I’m constantly scanning as far ahead as I can, breaking early, switching lanes and so forth…. It seems like most people just drive behind the car ahead of them.


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