Developing Situational Awareness

Tunnel vision

We are in the midst of an unnerving time in our country’s history. Hate crimes have spiked across the country let alone in New York City since our contentious and divisive election. People in our community are concerned and in some cases afraid for their well being.

It is a time when we are reminded of the need to come together.

It is also important that as individuals we work to develop our own abilities to self-protect.

One such ability is situational awareness.

Where is your mind when you walk? How do you move from place to place and from room to room? Are your eyes and senses wide open? Or, are you traveling with tunnel vision?

People can be so focused on getting where they want to go or on what is on their phones that they don’t pay attention to all that is happening around them. For anyone experienced with the Manhattan sidewalks, I bet you have experienced plenty of folk that move as if completely oblivious to the world around them. If not oblivious to the world at least to your shoulder as they bump right into you like you never existed.

It’s amazing how we so often gravitate to being somewhere else and/or doing something else than what we are currently doing.

  • We are driven by reaching our destination.
  • We wear headphones and blast music to get us in some sort of zone.
  • We text and talk on the phone everywhere, all the time.

It can be liberating to disconnect from your technology devices and to take in your present surroundings. In particular, paying more attention to your present situation can keep you safer.


A critical skill of self-protection is developing your situational awareness. This is a notable part of any self-protection course or martial arts practice. Developing your awareness involves asking and answering questions.

  • Where is the nearest exit?
  • How many people are around me?
  • How close is that person behind me?

Questions such as these and the information you gather that result from them can help you to develop your personal “radar”.

Your “radar” helps you to identify what might be threatening or suspicious behavior. Similarly, it helps you recognize your options for help, escape, or other actions.

With practice, your ability to evaluate where you are in space and develop your intuition to assess your safety becomes faster and more automatic.


Practicing your situational awareness can be fun. Approach it as a challenging activity. A chance to develop a new skill.

The following are some more detailed topics and questions to consider to help you improve your situational awareness.


  • How many people are near you?
  • Are they in front or behind?
  • Are they in a group or all doing their own thing?
  • What is their age


  • Do you hear a rustling of leaves, pounding of footsteps or the horn of a car?
  • Do you hear arguing or laughter?
  • Notice the shadows of others around you.
  • Can you tell how far they are from you?
  • Are they getting closer or further away?


  • Notice both the people but also the spaces between people. How can you navigate through the crowd using the spaces between?
  • What are the people’s motive?
  • Who seems late, stressed, frustrated?
  • Who is not paying attention?
  • Who is scanning the crowd?


  • Is there a store near by?
  • Is there a way back to the main street from the path you are on?
  • Are there other people around you can ask for help or get attention from?
  • Did you just pass a fire or police call box?


When you focus on understanding what is around you there are wonderful benefits. You gain the increased potential to stay safe. You also experience being more fully in the moment. These are not mutually exclusive benefits.

Being present in right now, recognizing both people and things around you inspires a feeling of connection. This is your world at this moment and you can explore your perceptions of this world both positive and negative. You practice understanding your current space — what risks you may feel and what actions might be available to you in the event of danger.

The questions detailed in this article are a good start to practicing situational awareness. Asking and answering them help you learn to gather information about your surroundings, but what you do with the information takes further practice and guidance. The intent of this process is not to make you feel more paranoid or worried but rather more at ease and empowered. It is also intended to make you self-reflect to understand why you might feel nervous in certain situations and around certain people.

This presence of mind and recognition of your perception of people, motion, feelings and energy is revealing. You get to know yourself just as much as those outside yourself. Maybe you’ll recognize the connection between self and non-self. Maybe you'll recognize a prejudice or anxiety that you can work to address.

Connect with your current condition. Focus on your current position in your environment. Go where you are going but don’t be completely consumed by your destination alone. Get your exercise without transporting yourself to a different zone through music or other distractions. You may increase your ability to stay safe and you may find many other benefits to increase your happiness as you do.