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Protective Zone- Watch and Act

watch and act image

 The bush fires around Australia are devastating and my hearts go out to the communities affected.  Looking at the fire warning apps on my phone I started thinking, what are the consequences if the watch and act zone remain around communities for too long: people stop going to the towns, money runs short, stress levels go up, you start moving different around your community and you become hyper vigilant. Having these watch and act zones are great short-term strategy to keep you safe and on alert, but if the watch and zone remains for too long, it can really disrupt our lives and health.

I pondered further and I started to see similarities between the watch and act zone for the bushfires and how we also protect the space that directly surrounds us.  We are constantly surveying the space around us and this allows us too to interact with our environment and keeps us on the lookout for any dangers that may enter our personal space. This protective zone can be centered around a particular body part that we perceive is under threat.  “The area of space that we protect aggressively will be bigger if we have a reason to protect it” (Butler & Moseley 2017). Like the fires the watch and act zone is dependent on the context, previous experience and future predictions.  This watch and act zone is always changing in size depending on the context of the situation we are in.

“Our normal personal space roughly matches that area we can touch without taking a step. Its widest around our head and follows our body down to the ground. The size of your personal space changes depending on risk and practicality” (Protecting your turf, Butler & Moseley, 2017)

2 years ago, I got my finger caught in the winch rope on the front of my car and it chopped off the top of finger and I needed surgery and skin grafts.  In the week that followed my protective zone around my finger became like an imaginary protective bubble centered around the finger. This protective bubble would vary in size and sensitivity depending on the context of the situations and how much danger I was perceiving around me.  At the end of the first week I was walking through the school yard to drop my kids off and I found myself becoming hyperaware of every threat around me, from kids running past me, to footballs flying past me.  My watch and zone around my hand increased in size and my senses were heightened, vision, smell, hearing and the sensitivity were increased and the flow of information about any potential dangers to my hand were increase. Our body will prime our immune and nervous and our senses to quickly transfer information to brain and you are constantly on alert. I was now alerted to any threat that entered the space around my hand. Instead of walking with a nice relaxed gait I was holding the arm stiff and close to my body and I was seeing a change in my movement patterns. One I left the school this protective bubble slowly over a few hours decreased in size and my senses and guarded movements slowly returned to normal. What a brilliant response of my body but let’s not let it hang around too long.

In the clinic over the years, I have seen many patients where this protective watch and act zone around their injured body part remains enlarged and sensitive for months or even years after the injury occurred. This is common sense approach if we perceive that the body part is in danger. Just moving your hand into this protective zone, you will see them tense and become hyperalert and danger detection in their body is heightened. So, how do we go about treating this in the clinic?

“top down, before bottom up” (Gifford 2014)

We need to listen to their story and identify any threats and help the patient make sense of why their body is responding the way that is.  You need to build trust and a working relationship with your patient, this is called a therapeutic alliance.  Gradually and slowly use graded exposure to decrease the sensitivity and size of the protective zone around the body part. Be prepared, this can be a very slow process.

“Start easy, build slowly” (Gifford 2014)

So, the next time you injury yourself or are protecting an area of your body become a curious observer and take notice of whether you develop a more sensitive or larger watch and act zone around the injured body part.


Butler & Moseley, Explain Pain Supercharged, Noigroup Publications, 2017

Gifford, Aches and Pains, CNS Press, 2014

Serino, Peri personal space (PPS) as a multisensory interface between the individual and the environment, defining the space of the self, neuroscience and reviews, Elsevier, 2019