One symptom of modern life is that everything is instant. Our unfettered access to the internet has allowed for instant “knowledge” –– if you can even call it that –– putting us just a simple Google search away from any morsel of (often trivial) information. And as instantaneous as our access is to news or gossip or family strife, so too are our reactions.
Despite its opening line indicating otherwise, an email can find us unwell –– and our fingers go to work, assembling a passive-aggressive response that could damage relationships. A stranger cut us off in traffic and, once again, our fingers go to work arranging themselves into the universal symbol for, “Don’t have a nice day.” I’m here to tell you that there’s another way –– that by rejecting immediacy in favor of a thoughtful and deliberate pause, you can preserve relationships, solidify your reputation, change your life, and begin saying and doing what isn’t reactive.
Today, you’ll learn the science behind the humble pause, and how integrating this tool into your personal and professional interactions can be an act of self-preservation (and even self-care.)
What Does it Mean to Pause? A (Brief) Science Lesson
When asked how he played the piano so well, virtuoso Artur Schnabel responded: “I handle notes no better than many others. But the pauses; that’s where the art resides.” Jazz players and fanatics, too, will tell you the music is really about the notes you don’t play. The truth is there’s an artfulness and a power in these deliberate pauses –– but you don’t have to be a musician to wield them.
A pause is a conscious slowing down; a space-maker between stimulus and response. Pausing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to become calm. When our nervous systems are calm, we have a greater capacity to avoid reacting out of habit, choosing instead a response that is more satisfying, effective, and attuned to the situation at hand.
In contrast to your parasympathetic nervous system, your sympathetic nervous system activates your fight or flight response –– preparing your body to almost instantly run or defend itself. But by activating your parasympathetic nervous system instead, these action responses are replaced by those of calm and relaxation. When you engage this system, you are effectively rewiring your brain, telling it: “We aren’t going to run, we aren’t going to fight. Instead, we’re going to pause.” In turn, you can lower anxiety, stress, and anger, and prevent the fallout that can accompany each.
Pausing = Self-Care
One exercise I practice with patients –– and occasionally with the Findsome & Winmore team during our weekly staff meetings –– is to locate the “stress dial.” I’ve found this to be a great way to tune into your body where all stress responses begin. Here, try it for yourself:
- Start by closing your eyes, and imagining you have a small dial smack dab in the center of your chest. Stainless steel, plastic, or solid gold –– that’s up to you. It is imaginary, after all!
- Take a mental inventory of some things that have happened today, or this week, and pay attention to how this dial is impacted.
- As you recall stressful or anxiety-inducing situations, you might notice this dial wind up, as if approaching a boiling point.
- When your dial is in this heightened position, your first response to stimuli is not your fault. Rather, it’s the fault of your sympathetic nervous system.
- It’s in these habitual responses that our regret primarily resides, as we often say the wrong thing, lose control, take our frustrations out on others, or shut down altogether.
- Add in a pause, tuning into your body, and you can bring that dial back down to room temperature, responding to stimuli with intent. Yes, you can actually control this (with practice.)
Believe it or not, this pause is a genuine form of self-care: helping us deal with our anxieties in healthy, productive ways rather than externalizing our stress (and creating even more anxiety in the process.) I’ve found that I tend to react to an issue with an immediate idea of how to fix it. Now, sometimes this response works, and other times it can lead to short-sighted plans and completely avoidable backpedaling. But when I pause and take a few breaths before responding to these challenges, I make room for a more creative and inclusive unfolding of a thoughtful resolution. It is also a more appreciated response to the person with whom I am interacting. I call that a win/win.
The Pause as a Relationship Tool
Professionally, this pause can be a lifesaver, but it can also be a powerful preservation tool when it comes to personal relationships. Parents: Think about a time your child has left LEGOs out for you to impale yourself on, drawn on the wall, tracked in muddy soccer cleats, or simply asked “Why?” for the 30th consecutive time. (Feel that stress dial creeping up?) Now, when we respond to these stimuli out of habit, the result is typically one we regret. But let’s say, instead of raising your voice and using some words I won’t repeat here, you take a moment to pause. By opting for a more deliberate, thoughtful response, you open the door for constructive reactions: those that might actually inspire learning as opposed to fear, and ultimately regret.
Non-parents, the same can be said for your relationships –– personal, romantic, complicated, or otherwise. Whatever the nature of the relationship may be, wielding the pause can help preserve (or strengthen) it. In any situation, the ability to recognize habits and behavioral patterns is, itself, a superpower. And before you begin taking pauses, you’ll need to find out where those pauses are most needed.
How You Can Press Pause
Pausing can be easier said than done, but there are a few ways you can begin incorporating the pause. As mentioned above, knowing how to pause will start with knowing when to pause. Pay attention to the times when your heart rate spikes or your stomach flutters –– these sympathetic nervous system symptoms will alert you to times when the pause is most powerful.
You can also verbally acknowledge the pause, to yourself or others. Say, “I need time to think about that,” or “I’m not sure right now,” rather than conjuring up a knee-jerk response. The solution that follows may be one of your best yet.
Lastly, you can do what I do: use the “drafts” folder. Type up the response you would send, then file it away to drafts and reflect on why this message might not contain your whole truth. This method can act like a set of training wheels, but if they never come off you can still enjoy the ride.
So, the next time an email derails your morning, a LEGO gets lodged in your foot, a stranger cut you off in traffic, or the anxieties of day-to-day life send your stress dial soaring, try and “press pause.” It might just change your life.