Situational Awareness and COVID 19, Part 2: Red Alert! Cooper's Colour Codes and Managing Stress

The Late, great, Col. Jeff Cooper developed a system of situational awareness which is known as Cooper’s Colour Codes.

The system is a very effective way of classifying how situationally-aware we are. It is also very useful in understanding how the adrenaline and our ability to focus are allocated in response to us being in different codes.

It is a very effective tool used often in self-defence to describe situational awareness, as well as when to switch from one code to another.

But on a societal level, the current COVID 19 pandemic is a fascinating analysis of how people are responding to crisis, and also explains clearly how our ability to make effective decisions is impaired at certain levels, especially if prolonged. Hopefully this article should provide you with some tips and tricks to help you sort through the flow of information and ration your focus and energy to those things that are both important and urgent.

Here we go.

To start with, let’s understand Cooper’s Colour Code System. It is divided into 5 colour codes, each one denoting a certain level of awareness, as follows:

  • WhiteCompletely unaware of what is happening around you. This can happen when you are fatigued or under the effects of drugs and alcohol. In this state you are practically unable to detect danger. It’s also important to highlight that we HAVE to spend some time in Code White regularly to allow recovery.
  • Yellow – Alert and aware, though not adrenalized or stressed. No threat has been identified, but you are paying attention to the environment and the people in it. If your code Yellow is working well and you have programmed yourself effectively to detect anomalies, it will be difficult for someone to ambush you.
  • Orange – This is a heightened state of awareness resulting from having identified a potential threat. You should be making plans on how to deal with the threat. You are starting to get adrenalized, and your ability to make decision is becoming impaired. You are burning through mental energy
  • Red – The threat is now real and identified, and the fight is about to begin, or is beginning.
  • Black – ‘State of War’. The fight has begun and has escalated, this is a kill-or-be-killed situation

You can see how this tool is very useful in situational awareness. Knowing when to switch up and down between codes is crucial to being situationally aware, focusing on the right threats, and also allowing time for recovery. Yellow is where you want to be as you are walking down the street, driving, on the train, etc.

Our brain has a very limited ability to achieve high levels of focus. Being at state orange or higher burns through that ability. Once you have burned through it, your performance will drop significantly, whether that’s in terms of your ability to fight, communicate, work, or anything else. Being over-adrenalized for long periods of time has very detrimental effects on both our bodies and our minds.

Here’s where things get funky. Our brain cannot differentiate between perceived threats and real threats. In other words, if I think something is a threat, my body will respond to it.

Enter COVID 19…

The threat is real, no doubt about that.

But another significant concern is the constant, relentless exposure on mass and social media, the vast majority of which is filled with opinion, hearsay, and un-credible sourcing posing as fact. We are bombarded by it in every waking moment. In addition, economic uncertainty is creating stress for everyone, as many people don't know if and when their paycheck will stop. 

The cumulative effect of which is that we are forced to stay at code Orange whenever we engage with social media or the news. We are literally under threat all the time.

The average person has about 45 minutes of laser-like focus per day. Let’s see how long this focus lasts:

  • You wake up in the morning, look at your phone for 15 minutes and are bombarded with COVID 19 news, posts from friends, memes about toilet paper, etc.
  • You get ready for work (at home, of course), open your laptop and check your emails. Since you last checked them you have received 30 emails from every service provider you have, as well as from family overseas, as well as your employer informing you of harsh new measures and terrible predictions of where things might go. An hour goes by.
  • You take a break to make a coffee, and happen to check Facebook. Another 15 minutes of COVID 19 hysteria.

It’s now 10am, and you have spent 90 minutes – double your daily laser-like focus – in code Orange, or even Red! 

What do you think the rest of your day is going to look like, in terms of stress, anxiety, productivity, creativity, and the ability to solve problems? How will it affect your family, with whom you are going to be stuck for a good length of time?

Situational awareness is not just for physical violence; it’s something we need to apply to every aspect of our life. Part of that, is knowing how and when to raise and lower our awareness.

The impact of this crisis on your own mental health will be severe if you do not know how to do this, as well as how to give yourself some time to recover.

Here are a few tips to get your started:


  1. Disconnect from social media unless absolutely necessary.
    If you need to use it for work, then make sure you give yourself plenty of breaks away from your device.

  2. Only follow information that comes from government and credible sources.
    Memes, Karen from Facebook, celebrities on Youtube, etc. are not credible sources of information. Spending (read ‘wasting’) time scrolling through will only heighten your awareness with non-fact, sensationalist bull. A good way to avoid this is to check a credible government websites 2-3 times a day for updates, and ignoring everything else.

  3. Look for the positives.
    Times of great risk and hardship are almost always the times when humans innovate and find new ways of doing things. Try and find the positive and be creative!

  4. Practice mindfulness.
    Try and be aware of which colour code you are in. Ask family/friends to help you out and call you out on this. You’d be amazed how much more time you spend being stressed than you think. When you do realise it, disconnect, get a breath of fresh air and don’t be hard on yourself.

  5. Have some physical ways to decompress.
    Exercise and martial arts are excellent (come talk to us at CAIA about virtual and online classes!)

If you need some more advice on manging stress and building resilience, I highly recommend this online course by Risk 2 Solution. Gav and the team (of which I am a part of!) are doing lots of great things to suport the community during this time. This is one such great initiative. 

Applying these regularly while maintaining the safety procedures to avoid exposure to the virus will make sure that you are not only physically healthy, but also staying on top of your mental game during a time that is without a doubt going to be challenging. Times like these are the perfect testing ground for all of those skills that you develop in Krav Maga and self-defence classes, outside of physical violence.

I invite you to start using the colour code system to monitor your own awareness during you daily life, and I hope it helps with managing the difficult time we know is coming.


Stay Safe, stay tuned


Last modified on Monday, 23 March 2020 19:03
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Ron Amram

Co-Founder and Co-Director of Combat Arts Institute of Australia. Nidan Gendai Ryu Krav Maga & Jujitsu, Shodan Danzan Ryu Jujutsu, Brown Belt Dennis Hisardut, Krav Maga Instructor, Cert IV Training & Assessment

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