These 5 simple steps can help you create the mighty ‘mindful pause’ 

We’ve all had one of those days when nothing seems to go right. Maybe colleagues are getting laid off at work and everybody’s on edge. Perhaps a dear friend has fallen ill. Maybe a relationship is in a difficult place. Or money is tighter than usual, and the bills are piling up. Maybe all of these things are true at the same time.

We feel like we’re hanging on by a thread, but somehow we’re keeping it together. And then, someone cuts us off in traffic and … we snap. 

Whew. Let’s rewind a little bit.

Stress creates a recipe for reactivity

What just happened here? We were minding our own business, going about our normal routine. Life isn’t perfect, but it’s mostly ok. So what’s the big deal? 

Even with a “mostly ok” foundation, each new stressor (challenge), adds a burden to our emotional and mental “load.” Over time, multiple stressors can build significant pressure. Without a plan for how to relieve that pressure in a healthy way, cracks can form in the foundation. 

When enough stress piles up, the whole structure can crumble without warning—even if the “final straw” is something that normally wouldn’t bother us at all. (Ever flown off the handle at a total stranger who bumped into you with their grocery cart before realizing you were actually in their way?) 

Responding vs. reacting: What’s the difference?

How can we understand the difference between a response and a reaction? Typically, a response comes from a place of thoughtfulness, empowerment and awareness. It generally leaves things in better shape than they were prior to the incident.

A reaction, on the other hand, is our survival instinct kicking in. And that survival instinct doesn’t really care if it makes a mess of things: Its only function is to get us out of harm’s way, and fast.

Fight, flight, or freeze: The amygdala gets the reaction ball rolling.

Located in the brain stem, the amygdala is the part of our “old brain” that kept our early human ancestors safe when they were being hunted out on the plains by wild animals. The amygdala triggers our fight-flight-freeze function, giving us the chance to escape being, you know, eaten for lunch. (Thanks, amygdala!)

Today, we don’t have as many immediate (physical) dangers in our midst. But that doesn’t mean we don’t perceive or experience threats. In fact, we can feel like we’re under constant threat despite the fact we’re no longer anybody’s next meal. 

An article in Psychology Today points to three types of “psychological threats” we encounter in our modern world, which include: 

  • Threats to our self-identity (how we describe ourselves)
  • Threats to our self-esteem (how we evaluate ourselves)
  • Threats to reaching our goals (e.g., education, career, finances)

When any such threat pops up, our amygdala registers it simply as “danger.” It automatically leaps to the rescue with a nice, juicy reaction. Before we know it, we’re lashing out at that poor person pushing the grocery cart. 

Calm, cool, and collected: The prefrontal cortex steps in with a mindful response.

Luckily, the amygdala isn’t the only player on the court. Meet the prefrontal cortex. This “newer” part of our brain evolved to organize our “executive function,” which includes neurological activities like memory, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. 

Putting our prefrontal cortex in charge

Without some kind of action on our part, the amygdala will always be the first character on the scene. It’s just how we’re wired. That means we have to rewire our brains to give our prefrontal cortex a head start. 

But don’t worry: Rewiring our grey matter isn’t brain surgery. We can create new pathways in our brain simply by practicing the “mindful pause.” The mindful pause is all about taking a beat before we respond to a stimulus or trigger.

How to practice (and perfect!) the mindful pause

Learning to pause requires planning, training, awareness, and a desire to do things differently. (Sounds like prefrontal cortex territory, right?) Here’s how you can build your mindful muscle:  

  1. Learn your triggers. Through self-reflection and discovery, learn the situations and scenarios that put you in a reactive place. By familiarizing yourself with these sensitive situations, you’re already priming your prefrontal cortex to know when and where its calming presence is needed most. 
  2. Pause and breathe. This is the toughest step, but it’s also where the magic happens. When you find yourself feeling triggered or overwhelmed, simply take a deep breath and count to 5 before you say or do anything. In the span of those few seconds, you give the prefrontal cortex a chance to race to the scene. Once the prefrontal cortex gets involved, the amygdala realizes the job is already handled. 
  3. Choose your response. Now that you’ve got your prefrontal cortex on board, ask yourself, what does this situation need? Which words will be most helpful? Which action feels right, respectful, authentic, kind? Remember: By returning someone else’s harsh words with loving ones, you’re actually showing yourself the respect and kindness you deserve as well. 
  4. Acknowledge your success. Give yourself a moment to register the positive change you made. You flipped the script. You gave yourself a break from drama. You took a potentially disastrous situation and smoothed it out. All you had to do was breathe and count to 5. And next time, your prefrontal cortex will show up even more quickly because it already knows the drill. 
  5. Practice when all is well. Taking a mindful pause when everything is going swimmingly gives you a chance to experience gratitude for the goodness and beauty of the world. The more often we practice that appreciation, the easier it becomes to find contentment and peace even during tough times.   

Building a relationship with your prefrontal cortex

As you repeat the process above in different situations and with different triggers, the response (vs. the reaction) starts to become your go-to. And that’s the ultimate goal: We want to train ourselves out of one automatic scenario (reactivity) into a different automatic scenario (responsiveness). 

So, practice the pause. And try to resist comparing your responses to the way someone else responds in a similar situation. Each of us is unique. We all bring different biological, psychological, environmental, familial, and community experiences to the table. Thankfully, the mindful pause is something that works no matter where we come from or where we’re trying to go. 

Uplevel your responsiveness game with Y mindfulness!

The Y teaches mindfulness as a self-care practice that helps transform how the mind reacts and relates to the world. Our mindfulness programs and services support people in developing strategies for restoring and repairing their health and wellbeing. 

Explore Y mindfulness programs 

Our programs include: 

  • Community Acupuncture:  Acupuncture can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including allergies, anxiety, arthritis, back pain, depression, headaches, high blood pressure, indigestion, inflammation, insomnia, menstrual irregularity, neck pain, PMS, shoulder pain, sore throat, stress, tendonitis, tension, TMJ pain, weight loss, and more. 
  • Sound Baths ("Singing Bowl Mediation"):  A trained Wellbeing Instructor plays crystal bowls to create unique, soothing sounds scientifically demonstrated to impact both physical and emotional wellbeing. Each group session begins with a short, guided meditation and/or breathwork practice. 
  • Mindful Movement:  A trained Wellbeing Instructor teaches the group how to manage their thoughts and emotions while overcoming barriers to exercise. Program participants learn how mindfulness can support overall health and wellbeing.