Power of the pause

We’re having a moment and it’s one that matters. The power of the pause can be life-changing. It’s a space between trigger and action that can reduce reactivity and improve your life.


The reason we need that pause now more than ever is we’re becoming so reactive. With alerts pinging and anxiety rife, we’re hard-wired for an instant reaction as we feel highly- strung most of the time. Neuroscientist Dr Gabija Toleikyte explains all about how the reaction is natural in her book Why The F*ck Can’t I Change (BookOuture).

Rein back your reptilian brain

“It’s to do with our amygdala, which sits deep in the middle of our brain,” she says. “Every emotion you hate, such as jealousy, anger and anxiety is mainly created by this structure. The amygdala constantly monitors if there is anything harmful out there and makes sure you pay attention to it.” It’s linked to the part of our brain known as the reptilian brain which rules our primitive fight-or-flight response.

Rather like good cop, bad cop, this part of the brain is balanced by the prefrontal cortex (PFC), at the front, under our forehead. This is the sensible part that rules sound judgement, will power and the ability to understand another person’s point of view. But as the two parts are connected, the amygdala can hijack the PFC when strong emotions surface such as anger, jealousy, fear and hurt. Then the sound common sense is replaced by feeling selfish and reactive. It’s kick-off time! Says Gabija: “Each of us has individual triggers that set these emotions off but the internal mechanism is the same.”

And, all too painfully, we know what can happen then. An argument, a head spin, a red mist of rage. Beware the ones that tick all the going-out-of-your-box boxes! We can’t overwrite that amygdala doing its thing. But now we know the science, we can look for solutions.

Can the solution be spiritual?

Once we’re on a course of reactive negativity, it’s tricky to turn back as adrenaline amps up the situation. Then we can say or do something we may regret. So, the happy place to be is before then. The brilliant American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, tells us how.

She cites the Tibetan word ‘shenpa’, which usually (and loosely) translates as attachment. This is, as the Buddhists know, the root cause of suffering. The layers of this philosophy are deep, of course. Put simply, just think of shenpa as an urge, that craving, that shift. It’s a hook that catches us and then we may struggle. We may turn to… Well, it’s often to do something ‘naughty’. Unless you’re prone to craving rice cakes. We can reach for comfort – food, substances, people. Bingeing, distracting and fleeing from that itchy feeling.

How to wriggle free from the hook

Even if shenpa is tricky to describe, you’ll know it when you feel it. You know when you have an itch? It’s like that sensation you get before you get to scratch it. That fraction of a feeling before you get to ease the discomfort. Once you start to recognise shenpa, the more you can notice its pull.

The Tibetan lama Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche calls it the ‘charge’ behind our thoughts and actions. It’s problematic when we don’t pause at that pull, or when we let the hook take hold. So if someone’s giving you a funny look or you’re being told something you don’t want to hear, then shenpa is that instance of irritation. And if we don’t notice it we can go headlong into reaction – the negative, destructive kind.

Pema says: “Mostly we don’t catch shenpa at an early stage. We don’t catch the tightening until we’ve already indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way.”

Its strength can direct what happens next. It can trigger addiction. It’s the turn towards: ‘I need a drink’ after that. I need a slice of cake, a whole cake. Or, if unchecked, it can lead us to rampage on a path of destruction.

But the happy news is that now you’ve heard about this hook, you’ll be more aware of it and then can act positively not react mindlessly. This is the powerful pause. The time in which you can choose to take the road back to a happy place not hell.


“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 is an author and Holocaust concentration camp survivor who famously wrote: “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.”

Back to the science. Gabija explains: “Whenever we feel strong emotions such as anger, jealousy, fear or hurt, we need to wait for the amygdala to calm down and the PFC to get back into a full swing before we act. In fact, it’s not the emotions that are destructive but the behaviours we engage in while we are in the amygdala hijacked state.”

She says we have to create that break. It doesn’t have to be 15 minutes – the time it takes for the amygdala to fully calm. Even five minutes can have a positive impact. And even a brief pause can be enough to stop unleashing hell and find your happy place.


How to positively pause

  • Quick, meditate!

Pema’s answer to getting unhooked. “The best way to develop our ability to stay fully present with shenpa and to equate that with loving kindness is in meditation. This is where we can train in not getting swept away.” As we can practise our meditation skills, like building a muscle, we can strengthen this power to pause.

  • Use soothing scents

Suzy Reading suggests scents to soothe in her new self-care journal, And Breathe.
“Scent has the power to transform your mood in an instant, whether it be via the opportunity to pause and take a moment to enjoy a deeply pleasurable aroma, by encouraging us to stand tall and take a few restorative breaths, or the scent itself harnessing different energetic effects. Choose peppermint or pine to focus, citrus, basil, white neroli and mimosa to energise and uplift, or lavender or myrrh to soothe and calm.”



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Ruby Wax’s Mindful Moments

Ruby uses mindfulness for the power of pause:

  • Stop
  • Notice where you are in the room
  • Sense where your body contacts the floor and chair
  • Take your focus to your breathing. Notice the minute sensations of inhaling and exhaling and what happens between the in and out-breath
  • Thoughts will always come and go and, when they do, just be aware. Watch them arise and fade, always changing. If you find that hard, give your impulses a label – for example, a need to rage at someone, shame, envy, go buy a new car. Bob hates me, etc.

You’ll notice the list is endless but if you observe the items on it with curiosity and kindness, they won’t snare you.

So before you make that next move, remember first things first, and take that moment.

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