When we are forced to deal with particularly stressful situations, we are victims of a very striking phenomenon: our perception is restricted and we focus on danger. We develop a tunnel vision in which everything else is blurred. Thus we end up focusing our efforts and energy on what worries or scares us.
Without realizing it, we fall into anguish, we are gradually consuming ourselves in worries. We fail to see the whole picture, but we sink deeper and deeper into a spiral of real and imagined dangers. We are losing contact with reality, which makes us respond in a maladaptive way.
Therefore, when we go through complex times marked by change and uncertainty, we need a special psychological tool: situational awareness.
What is situational awareness?
Situational awareness is knowing what is going on around us. It involves drawing a kind of mental map that helps us understand where we are, what surrounds us and what are the challenges that lie ahead. This ability allows us to see clearly what is happening to develop an effective coping plan.
In practice, situational awareness is like looking up from the ground to perceive everything around us. It is allowing us to take a psychological distance from the situation to see it with more perspective, a perspective that allows us to analyze our opportunities and make an informed decision.
The three levels of situational awareness
1. Perception of the situation. Situational awareness starts from the knowledge of the situation in which we are immersed, which is achieved through the processes of perception and attention. If we are not vigilant enough, we will not be able to capture the big picture. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts revealed that when we walk and text at the same time, we miss 48.3% of the visual cues that come our way.
2. Assessment of the situation. Situational awareness does not just involve taking note of what is happening around us. The second level demands a processing of that information to understand its meaning. We must assess and interpret the information we have collected to make sense of it. In many cases we carry out this evaluation instantly and with little effort from the recognition of key patterns, but in other cases, especially when the environment changes, to build that sense we must make a continuous effort to understand the connections between people, places and/or events.
3. Decision making. Situational awareness is not a merely contemplative process, but is focused on the future. Although the creation of meaning is focused backwards in time, the resulting information looks to the future. In other words, we take note of our environment in order to anticipate its trajectory and act accordingly. We imagine the most likely scenarios to make more effective decisions.
That means that situational awareness determines our response to different events in life. It allows us to know if in a certain situation it is better to speak or be silent. Whether we should dare to step forward or whether it is better to step back and wait. In fact, its importance is key in many professional fields. A study carried out at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston found that in cases of diagnostic errors by doctors, the lack of one of the components of situational awareness was evident.
What causes loss of situational Awareness?
The lack of situational awareness leads us to a state of “situational stupidity”, which consists of maintaining a thoughtless and/or ignorant position in which we do not take into account environmental factors to make our decisions. Then we run the risk of disconnecting from reality and acting motivated by unrealizable desires and irrational expectations.
• Cognitive overload. Distractions, for example, are a major cause of loss of situational awareness. When we focus too much on one stimulus, we can forget about the rest. Likewise, when we have to face two problematic situations, it is common for one to prevail and the other to blur, which leads to a biased perception of our environment and leads us to belittle or even completely ignore different dangers.
• Emotional overload. Emotions are one of the main distractions that make us lose emotional awareness. Our expectations about what we want to happen can cause us to lose sight of details that tell us that circumstances are going in another direction. For example, our desire to get out of the confinement of the last few months made us lose sight of the danger that still lurked. In fact, a study developed at the University of Hong Kong during the H1N1 pandemic influenza revealed that situational awareness was an essential factor in meeting individual health protection standards, especially when the level of uncertainty is high and widespread.
How to develop situational awareness?
The first step in activating situational awareness is knowing where we are. It is not about locating ourselves in a physical space, but about finding that vital point that leads us back to the present and allows us to perceive all the factors that are determining our life at this precise moment. For this we can ask ourselves different questions:
• How do I feel right now?
• What things are influencing this emotional state?
• Is there an immediate threat in the environment?
• What hope do I have?
The second step consists in finding a meaning, drawing a mental map that allows us to recognize patterns. In many cases we will have to dig into our past experiences to find the meaning of what is happening but in other cases we will need to break old schemes to find the meaning.
• How did I get here?
• What things have changed around me?
The third step is to project ourselves into the future. In this case we must combine the objective data that we have collected with our intuition, especially when the future involves a high level of uncertainty. Intuitive intelligence can be providential in these cases. We can ask ourselves:
• What goal do I want to achieve?
• How likely are the worst omens to come true?
• How can I avoid or minimize the danger that I see on the horizon?
• What have I done in similar situations in the past?
However, to develop a truly effective situational awareness in stressful situations, we need to accompany each of these steps with a serene attitude, an attentive but relaxed gaze, discreetly distanced from that reality that we are evaluating. Only in this way can we reduce stress to an acceptable level that allows us to broaden our perception, develop a broader perspective and a viable plan of action for tomorrow.
The present is full of challenges and the future is a blurred dimension, but it will become more and more outlined as we calibrate our inner compass. Knowing where we are and where we want to go is a good starting point that will give us the security necessary to navigate through the storm.
Endsley, M. R. (2015) Situation Awareness Misconceptions and Misunderstandings. Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making; 9(1): 4-32.
Lim, J. et. Al. (2015) Dual task interference during walking: The effects of texting on situational awareness and gait stability. Gait & Posture; 42(4): 466-471.
Singh, H. et. Al. (2012) Exploring situational awareness in diagnostic errors in primary care. BMJ Qual Saf; 21(1): 30-38.
Liao, Q. et. Al. (2010) Situational Awareness and Health Protective Responses to Pandemic Influenza A (H1N1) in Hong Kong: A Cross-Sectional Study. PLoS One; 5(10): e13350.
Endsley, M. R. (1995) Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors; 37(1): 32–64.