The Art of the Pause
The frequency with which anxiety exists in our bodies can only be described as frenetic and unrelenting. A hive of bees when it is at its worst. An amalgamation of symptoms—elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, shortness of breath, tensed muscles. It’s no wonder those of us burdened with anxiety move quickly—from one task to another, constantly planning and waiting for the next crisis we will inevitably overthink. It’s taxing both emotionally and physically. To overcome such intense symptoms feels impossible. But what if it isn’t?
My clients lament that they feel consumed by their anxiety—especially social anxiety. They feel pressured to say yes to friends and family members whenever a question is asked of them. In session they’ll report that they didn’t even want to participate in the social activity they agreed to go to, and often feel emotionally tapped out when everything is said and done. In the moment their anxiety was fueling their decision making and they didn’t consider how they actually wanted to respond.
So, what if we didn’t feel the pressure to respond immediately to questions asked of us? What if, instead, we took a moment to consider an answer that is genuine and intentional? It feels radical, indulgent. It’s exactly what anxiety instinctually denies us—pause. A deep breath. A focused moment to consider our needs rather than coming from a place of chaos. Pausing is an artform. It models healthy boundaries. Encourages thought. The next time you are propositioned by a friend or family member to participate in a social gathering I suggest this—take a beat, inhale, exhale, and reply “Let me get back to you.” You’ve just created an opportunity for yourself to reflect and consider. Never commit to something in the moment (if you can help it). Cultivate curiosity and consideration about social opportunities. Does this bring about a sense of dread? Delight? Could it be great?
What about things you’ve already committed to or just can’t get out of? Create an exit strategy. I love teaching this to my clients in session. I always reference the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta’s character has excused himself to use the restroom and recites this piece of dialogue
One drink and leave. Don't be rude,
but drink your drink quickly, say
goodbye, walk out the door, get in
your car, and go down the road.
You’re only going to stay for 30 minutes. You’ll have 1 drink. You’ll stay for appetizers. Whatever it takes for you to feel in control of the situation. You can share this info with your friends, “Sorry, I can only stay for 30 minutes and then I have to go.” But what if you’re having a good time by the time your 30 minutes Is up? Suddenly your prior obligations are no longer there, and you can stay! If the event sucks? “Oh jeez, it’s time for me leave!” Other helpful ideas that have been created in session include driving yourself to events. It feels empowering to know you have a way to leave if you’re not feeling it. I can’t tell you how many people admit feeling stuck somewhere because they drove with a friend who has a completely different social meter and can stay out till the wee hours of the morning.
Finally, if social anxiety has overtaken your life, therapy is always an option. Sometimes therapy coupled with medication is the healthiest, most productive way to tackle this dilemma. Being able to show up and process the struggle around being social with a therapist who can offer up ideas like this is tremendously effective. You don’t have to resign yourself to a life of solitude!