Friday, August 12, 2011

Most people meander through life, oblivious to the world around them.

Most people meander through life, oblivious to the world around them. They are mentally taken up with thoughts of work, personal problems, the hot red-head they just passed, or other trivial things, paying no mind to their immediate surroundings. By being unaware of their surroundings, they place themselves in needless danger.

People typically operate on distinct levels of awareness. There are many ways to describe the levels. Perhaps the most effective way to illustrate the differences between the levels of awareness is to compare them to the degrees of attention we practice while driving. I will refer to the five levels of awareness as “tuned out,” “relaxed awareness,” “focused awareness,” “high alert” and “comatose.”

The first , tuned out, is the state of awareness most exercises when driving in a very familiar area or is enamored in thought, a daydream, music or even their children in the backseat. More and more, cellphones and texting are also causing tune outs while driving. Have you ever gotten in you car and arrived at your destination without even really thinking about your drive? If yes, you’ve tuned out.

The second level, relaxed awareness, is similar to defensive driving. This is a mindset in which you are relaxed but watching the other cars on the road and are looking ahead for potential hazards. If another driver looks like they may not stop at the approaching intersection, you may tap your brakes to slow your car in case he does not. This type of driving should not make you weary, and you should be able to maintain this way for a long while if you have the control to keep yourself at this level, but it is extremely easy to slip back into the tuned-out mode. While practicing defensive driving you still enjoy the trip, the scenery, and the radio, but you do not allow yourself to get so drawn into those distractions that they exclude everything else. You should be relaxed and enjoying your drive, but you still watching for hazards,and keeping an eye on the behavior of the drivers around you.

The next level, focused awareness, is equivalent to driving in hazardous conditions. You use this level of awareness when you are driving on icy or snow-covered roads, or roads that are filled with potholes. When you are driving in such conditions, you keep both hands on the wheel and you need to have your attention focused on the road and the other drivers. You can't take your eyes off the road or let your attention wander. This is no time for cellphone calls or any other distractions. The level of attention required for this type of driving is extremely tiring and stressful. This can turn a drive that you normally would not think twice about into a totally exhausting drive because it demands your undivided concentration for an extended period of time.

The next level is high alert. This level induces an adrenaline rush, a pair of striped undies, and a deep breath of air all at the same time — “Watch out! There’s a deer in the road! Punch the brakes!” High alert may be scary, but you are still able to function and immediately respond to hazards. You punch the brakes and keep control of your car. The adrenaline dump may even enhance your reflexes. But your body can sustain only short stretches of high alert before become totally exhausted.

The final level, comatose, is what happens when you cannot respond to stimuli, either because you have fallen asleep or, because you are paralyzed with panic. It is this paralysis that is the most concerning in response to situational awareness. This level of awareness — or more accurately, lack of awareness — occurs when a person's brain fails to process information and they simply cannot react to the stimuli. Often after this occurs, a person may go into denial, thinking that “this isn't happening to me,” or they may feel as though they are observing as opposed to actually being involved in the event. Frequently, time will appear to stand still. Victims commonly report this feeling as well as being unable to act or react during the crime.

Now that the different levels of awareness have been explained, let’s identify what level is required at a specific time. Body and mind can both become fatigued, so we must spend several hours each day comatosed while asleep. When sitting at home watching TV, surfing the net, or reading, it is acceptable to be in the tuned-out mode. Some people attempt to maintain this mode in the most inappropriate places (e.g., when they are out at night walking down the sidewalk in an unknown neighborhood, or they will maintain a belief that criminals can make them a victim. Others are completely tuned out as they stroll through their lives that they miss even conspicuous signs of victimization targeted directly at them. They can also be tuned-out due to fatigue or intoxication. It is not unusual to see some tuned-out people pour from airports after long flights. Thugs also frequently prey on intoxicated people.

If you're tuned-out while driving and something happens (e.g., a deer runs into the road or a car slams on the brakes front of you) you will not see the hazard. This means that you will not see the hazard in time causing you to hit it, or you totally panic and freeze, neither is good. This reaction or lack of reaction occurs because it is nearly impossible to change your mental state quickly, especially when going from tuned out to high alert. It is like trying to shift from first gear into fifth and you shudder and stall.

When people are forced to make this mental jump and they panic, they go comatose. This can happen not only when driving but when a criminal attacks someone totally unaware and unprepared. Training can help people move up and down the awareness scale, it is often hard for highly trained persons to jump from tuned-out to high alert. This is why police, federal agents and military receive extensive training on situational awareness.

It is imperative to note that situational awareness does not mean being paranoid or being obsessive about your safety. It does not mean having the thought process expectation that there is a dangerous criminal lurking behind every shrub and in every dark alley. People cannot operate in a state of focused awareness for extended periods, and high alert can be maintained for very short periods before exhaustion occurs. The “fight or flight” reflex can be very helpful if it can be controlled. When it's out of control, a constant flow of adrenaline is not healthy for the body or the mind. When constantly paranoid, one will become mentally and physically drained. This is dangerous and safety suffers because it is difficult to remain aware of your environment when you are a complete nut-job. Operating continuously in high alert is not the answer,neither is being in prolonged periods of focused alert, that can be overly demanding and completely incapacitating. This process causes alert fatigue, even highly skilled professionals, require time to reset.

The basic level of situational awareness that should be practiced most of the time is relaxed awareness, a frame of mind that can be easily maintained infinitely without stress and fatigue found with focused awareness or high alert. Relaxed awareness allows you to enjoy life while maintaining a level of personal security. When you are in an area where there may be danger (which can be anywhere), go through your day in relaxed awareness. Then if your "spidey senses" start to tingle, you can shift easily to focused awareness and examine a potential threat or other threats in the area.

If a potential threat is simply a false alarm, you can down-shift to relaxed awareness and carry on. If you determine that the potential threat is a real threat, watching it allows you to take preventative actions to avoid it. You may never need to shift to high alert, because avoided the threat early on. But, once in focused awareness you'll find it easier to shift to high alert if the thugs guys lurking in the alley start coming toward you and look as if they are reaching for weapons. The chance of you going comatose will be greatly reduced when you shift from focused awareness into high alert rather than being caught by surprise and your brain is forced to shift to high alert from tuned-out.

If you must go into an area that is known to be dangerous, you should gear yourself up to focused awareness when you are in that area. An increased level of awareness is prudent when engaging in common tasks, such as visiting an ATM or walking to your car in a dark parking lot. The relatively simple nature of these routine tasks can make it easy to tune out and expose you to easily avoidable hazards. When the potential danger zone has been passed, you should shift back to a state of relaxed awareness.

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