“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor Frankl
Much of my own personal work over the years as well as the work I do as a therapist has been helping to cultivate the art of the pause. What does that even mean to pause? I found it helpful to look at some common definitions of the word pause which included:
– A temporary stop in action or speech
– Interrupt action or speech briefly
The phrase “To give someone pause” is defined as causing someone to think carefully or hesitate before doing something.
So, why craft the ability to pause? Why is this such a valuable life skill? Perhaps first we should explore some of the reasons we may find it difficult to implement the pause in our daily lives to begin with. Do you find yourself feeling frequently overwhelmed and/or enraged when stuck in traffic, or being cut off? Maybe you find yourself easily irritated and frustrated with your kids or being reactive with your significant other. Or, perhaps, you are becoming aware of how quickly you rush through your days without ever taking a moment for yourself to breathe or relax even just a little.
Speeding through life and frequent reactive, impulsive knee-jerk reactions are often the norm for those of us who grew up with early trauma and adversity. This can occur because of adaptive changes the brain makes in response to the chronic stress in the environment. Chronic or toxic stress happens when a child experiences frequent and/or prolonged adversity- such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness or substance abuse, exposure to violence and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship- without adequate adult support.
Chronic or toxic stress in early childhood mobilizes the “fight, flight” hormonal system. When this happens too frequently or for too long it changes the architecture of the brain. Cortisol levels remain elevated which can affect several neural systems, impair our immune response and set us up for long-term deleterious effects on our physical and emotional health.
Toxic stress early on can result in a lifetime of struggle and difficulty controlling our stress response system and it can become overly reactive and/or slow to shut down when faced with challenges and threats. We become adults who have difficulty making accurate assessments and often feel threatened and respond impulsively to situations where this is no real threat and remain activated well after the threat has passed.
So, you can see, for many of us, we have experienced those brain adaptations that make pausing more difficult, especially when faced with challenging circumstances. One of the ways I have found incredibly helpful on my journey to slow down and create more spaciousness has been to develop more mindfulness in my life. Mindfulness is simply bringing our complete attention to our present moment awareness (thoughts, feelings, bodily awareness) without judgment and with gentleness and compassion. Another interesting definition for mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance.
So, what does mindfulness have to do with the brain changes that can happen with early adversity and our ability to cultivate the art of the pause in our everyday life? Well, here is where it gets interesting. Research has shown that mindfulness improves emotional regulation, not by eliminating or reducing emotional experience, but instead, it is the present-moment awareness and acceptance of emotional experience that develops are capacity to soothe a dysregulated nervous system.
The research supports the idea that this kind of attentive and open stance toward our own emotions and thoughts allow us to notice these emotions earlier on and take necessary steps to help them from spiraling out of control.
I was first introduced to mindfulness in my twenties when I completed extensive training in a therapeutic modality called Hakomi, which is a mindfulness, somatic and experiential based approach to change based on the tenets of curiosity, gentleness and non-violence. I went into my career as a therapist and this training as someone who had struggled personally with the changes that result from trauma and I often felt like I was on fire inside.
My response to most things that had any overlap with my early childhood trauma or were personally triggering to me were at once highly reactive and lightning quick. It felt to me like there was no space at all between the trigger and my reaction- I often felt like an open wound living in the world.
As I began to slowly change my language around my emotional experience to one that was less shaming and more nurturing and compassionate, I realized I had this new ability to witness myself from a more neutral framework. Where I was once had to utilize my limited resources to defend against the onslaught of the trauma laden narratives that had been passed down to me, I found an emergent witness within myself, compassionate, patient, and capable of infinite kindness. It was from this that I found the courage to slow down and become curious about my own process, the trauma I carried in my body and the ways I engaged with the world around me.
The art of the pause happens when we learn to embrace, comfort and soothe the internal fires. Just as an ideal mother might do with her hurting child, we offer to ourselves a safe place, kind words, and a sweetness we may have lived a lifetime without to the places we hold that suffer.
The pause will always have difficulty co-existing in an internal environment of judgment, shame and harshness. It is just too difficult to do the kind of self-reflection required for growth and change under those circumstances. The art of the pause is cultivated in gentleness and kindness, in love and
encouragement. The art of the pause is the natural by-product of our fierce commitment to bring our attention to our present moment experience with openness, curiosity and acceptance. It is in cultivating the art of the pause where change is possible and hope lives.