We experience stress when we are faced with challenges and obstacles that threaten our sense of physical or psychological well-being. How we react or respond to a stressful situation largely depends on how aware we are. If unaware, we behave in a more automatic way: the typical fight-or-flight reaction. The engage / run reaction mobilizes the body by secreting stress hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline leads to a state of hyper-arousal by increasing the heart rate, so that more blood and oxygen is directed to large muscles of the arms and legs to fight or run.
The fight/flight response was useful when our ancestors lived in caves and jungles. The hyper-arousal state increased their chances of surviving imminent dangers - such as fire, flood, or attacks by wild animals - by quickening their reflexes. However, modern-life stresses originate not from threats to our lives primarily, but more from those to our "sense of self" such as when "my ideas", "my beliefs", "my needs" are challenged or ignored. For example, when our ideas are rejected by friends or colleagues, we either argue or lash out (fight), don't listen (flight).
In such circumstances, automatic reaction - stemming from unawareness - increases stress and frustration. It prevents clear thinking and intelligent action. Physically, we feel anxious and tense in the shoulders, jaws, arms and legs even in the absence of a life-threatening situation.
How Awareness Helps
Imagine you had a disagreement with a colleague, a friend or someone you care about. You see him/her walking towards you and feel butterflies in your stomach. Your initial impulse may be to avoid this stressful situation by walking away, pretending you are busy. However, you also realize this could prolong the animosity and increases stress.
To address this situation with awareness, we need to:
1. Become aware of the stressful event (someone coming at me)
2. Allow myself to be aware of how I feel, but don't let the feeling take over (I am aware of the fear but won't let it to get me to retreat, back away or lash out)
3. Offer to see the other's point of view by asking, "let me hear your point of view" (I want to hear their point of view without wanting to make them wrong and myself right)
4. I paraphrase or repeat what they say to make sure I have understood them correctly: "If I hear you correctly you are saying..." or "Are you suggesting..."
5. Then I express my point of view and remain open to what they respond (without being defensive about my side of the story)
The purpose of this exercise is to bring more awareness to our communication, to hear and be heard more attentively. Although this is not meant for reaching an agreement or a settlement, out of hearing each other's point of view a solution might emerge.
Practice: Over the next week observe what events tend to trigger your reactive responses.