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Why Self-awareness Matters For Stress Resilience

Of the five key mind-body skills I list (in my Stress Resilience Blueprint), self-awareness is truly foundational. Self-awareness doesn't sound like anything much at all, but the other skills presuppose self-awareness, as does pretty much any psychological faculty or resource you could think of. In this article I'm aiming to draw out the special significance of self-awareness.

I'm talking about self-awareness in a particular sense: awareness of your body responses and processes, including feelings, desires and urges to act, plus awareness of your thoughts and thinking patterns, and then crucially how these two relate to each other – awareness of how the mind-body connection plays out in practice, how your body responds to your thinking, and how the feelings in your body condition your thoughts.

Self-awareness is a prerequisite for choice and control. If your thoughts and feelings are operating outside of awareness, then they control you. If you want to control them, the first thing is to open up a window of awareness that is an opportunity to pause and consider, before choosing, deciding and acting.

Suppose for example, that you're feeling angry and resentful – say your boss said something you consider completely unfair, and you find you can't let it go. Hours or even days later, you're still playing imaginary conversations in your head about what you should have said, or what you'd really like to say, or about all the boss's faults and other times they were completely unfair.

This kind of mood is not just a matter of a certain set of thoughts running through your head. There's a body state to back it up – the body state is what makes these thoughts angry resentful thoughts, rather than just any old thoughts.

Imagine what an angry face looks like. This article has a good picture of an angry face, and also explains the different elements.

Chances are, a mild strop doesn't look so extreme as this but probably the same elements are there to a much weaker degree – e.g. the clenched jaw and the knotted brow. Probably only the most sensitive and emotionally intelligent people would pick up on your mood.

How could you break out of this resentful thought loop? You could try telling yourself things like, it doesn't really matter, just let it go, just stop thinking about it, etc. That might work - but probably not when there is a significant emotional charge behind the thoughts. In my experience what will work better is to notice how your body state helps maintain the thinking patterns – the subtle or not-so-subtle tightness in the jaw and brow. Once you're aware of it, you can literally let go. (I don't think it's entirely metaphorical when we speak of letting go of emotions.)

Of course I've only mentioned one aspect of physiology – muscle tension – and there will be other patterns of change, such as shifts in breathing, but hopefully you get my point: by becoming aware of how the mind-body connection plays out you can more effectively change things. By shifting your physiology you can take the heat out of emotions. But the starting point is awareness.

Stress Management Decision-Making

In any context, what you need to do next, depends on your assessment of where you are now. In an earlier article I presented a model for thinking about stress, known as the Human Performance Curve.

I've reproduced the diagram below.

human performance curve

It captures the idea that optimal performance is a matter of balanced effort and arousal. You can get into real problems when you find yourself to the right of the peak, trying harder in some sense, and heading further to the right, and down the performance slope.

In these situations what's needed is to somehow let go and reduce arousal and effort – but first you have to notice what's happening, and where you are in relation to the peak of optimal performance, and whether you're in danger of getting into what I've called the quicksand trap.

Empathy: Simulating Others' Feelings

I want to conclude by looking at how self-awareness underpins a higher-level faculty: empathy. Empathy is the ability to know how others are feeling, and to feel it yourself at least to some extent. We can do this by mentally putting ourselves in the shoes of the other: some part of the mind, perhaps a relatively automatic and unconscious part, wonders what it would feel like, to be in their situation. Then the emotion-triggering centres of the brain respond as though we were in that situation, and they create a similar (albeit probably much weaker) body response, which we perceive as a feeling. so we know how the other feels because we can literally feel how we would feel, in their position.

Evidence for this account of empathy can be seen in the finding that botox treatment reduces empathy. Botox is a beauty treatment in which a neurotoxic substance is injected into the muscles of the face, paralysing them (and reducing wrinkles in the process). But now these facial muscles which normally play a role in facial expressions, can no longer respond to emotional cues. Feelings are blunted, because remember feeling is the perception of bodily responses to emotional triggers - and the bodily responses have been blunted.

Implicit in what I'm saying is that we have to have the self-awareness of our own body states in order to feel empathy.

My services and programmes aim to help clients develop self-awareness and other component skills of self-resilience. Please browse this site for more information, or contact me to find out how I might be able to help you.

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