27th February, 2023

The Power of Pressing Pause

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

When you’re dealing with a stressful situation, your first instinct might be to act immediately to solve it. Unfortunately, acting immediately often means you don’t think your actions through. Acting rashly can worsen the situation, making it even more stressful. Fortunately, there’s a better way to respond to stress. All you have to do is take a few seconds to press the pause button.

In this quick dip episode of You Are Not a Frog, you’ll discover the power of pressing pause in the middle of a stressful time. Rachel shares some of her own difficult experiences and how pausing could’ve helped her react better. She talks about how our brains can respond to stress and what we can do to ground ourselves and go back to rational human thinking. Face stressful situations as the person you want to be when you use the power of pressing pause.

Discover how pausing can help you deal with stress when you take a moment to pause with us and tune into this quick dip episode.

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Reasons to listen

  1. Discover how much time you need to pause and deal with stress.
  2. Learn how you can ground yourself back into your parasympathetic nervous system.
  3. Find out what the four Ps are and how you can use them to make a plan to pause.

Episode highlights


Backed Into the Stress Zone


Taking Seconds to Hours to Press Pause


Getting Back Into Your Parasympathetic Nervous System


Getting Enough Pause Time


The Four Ps Plan

Episode transcript

Rachel Morris: This is a You are Not a Frog Quick Dip, a tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energised and inspired. For more tools, tips and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You are Not a Frog, wherever you get your podcasts.

Welcome to another You are Not a Frog Quick Dip episode. This one is about the power of pressing the pause button. Now, a few years ago, I was in surgery. I was on call. It was five minutes to six, and I received a phone call from my childminder, who said, ‘Rachel, can you come and get your kids? It’s really urgent. I need to take one of the other children to hospital, so I need you to pick them up as soon as possible.’

So I start getting all my things together, packing my bags, and ensuring I’ve done everything so I can leave on the dot at six. What happens, of course, you guessed it, an urgent visit gets run through at two minutes to six. I got on the phone with the patient. It was a lady who lived with her elderly mother. In the morning, her elderly mother had been really ill. This lady had gone to work, come back, and surprise, surprise: her mum was even worse.

So she was ringing to say, could we come and see her. So I was stressed. I was trying to get out the door to get my kids, and I had this urgent visit to do. I got on the phone with this woman and said, ‘Why are you asking us to visit now? Do you know how late in the day it is? What were you doing, even thinking about going to work when your mom was so ill?’ At that point, I was not the doctor I wanted to be. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be.

Now, this story has a happy ending. I went to see the patient. I apologised for my behaviour. We admitted her to the hospital, and everything was sorted out, but the shame spiral that I was then thinking, gosh, how can I’ve treated someone like that? What sort of a doctor am I? I thought I was compassionate, but look how I behaved.

That shame spirals far worse, and the stress of actually going and doing the visit because I got someone else to pick up the kids was all sorted. Many of you can look back on times in your career when you have behaved in a way that you’re pretty ashamed of, that you look back and think, what on earth was going on with me? The reason you behaved like that was that you were in your stress zone.

I can’t help thinking that the one thing that would have helped me was to just stop, pause, and collect myself before I got on the phone with the lady. Now, we can read all sorts of things about giving feedback, how to have difficult conversations, about how to say no. But in that scenario, I just needed to calm down. Sometimes we overcomplicate this thing about how we respond better and how we deal with stressful situations.

What if it was just as simple as pausing before we get into action? Because I’m sure, many of you can look back on times in your career when you behaved in a way that you’re pretty ashamed of, where you just weren’t the person you wanted to be. You weren’t yourself. I can virtually guarantee that you were in your stress zone in every one of those instances.

You were, what I call, backed into the corner in your fight, flight or freeze zone. When we’re in this zone, we do not behave very well. What happens is that our amygdala detects a threat. So my amygdala in that situation detected the threat of not being able to get home in time, upsetting people, and causing harm to somebody else, and I was back straight into the corner. Our amygdala detects all sorts of threats; physical threats, hierarchical threats, and people not liking you or upsetting people.

I’ve said this a million times before. If when we were living in caves, we upset people, we got kicked out of the tribe. We would probably die of exposure, being eaten by a lion or both. So this thing about upsetting people is a real existential threat to us, and we respond immediately by going into our stress zones, where we are in our sympathetic nervous system. There’s lots of adrenaline going around our bodies, and the blood is diverted from your brain into your muscles so that you can run away.

When we are in this space, we cannot think very clearly. We can only make very black-and-white decisions such as, should I run away from that tiger or not? We cannot think creatively, and outside of the box, which is what we need to do in quite a few of these difficult-threatening situations we find ourselves in. It’s not so much about running away from tigers anymore.

The problem is that, at the moment, an awful lot of things are triggering us into our stress zone. But when we’re there, we don’t serve ourselves well, and then we’re more likely to make mistakes, get complaints, and have interpersonal issues with colleagues. All of this makes us miserable at work, have bad patient outcomes, and have a pretty stressed team.

We know that when a leader in a team reacts badly to stressful situations, that stress gets passed directly onto the team. I have noticed this in myself recently when something goes wrong, and I’m in my stress zone. My initial thoughts are that I need to act on it immediately. When I do that, things always go wrong. So, when you feel yourself entering that stress zone, when you are reacting to something that has just happened, there’s a very simple way of dealing with it: press the pause button.

So how does this work? Well, when we’re triggered by something, we react immediately because our amygdala responds five times faster than the rest of our human rational thinking brains. So we react before we even have thought about why we’re feeling like we’re feeling, puts it straight into our sympathetic nervous system zone, and as we just talked about, we don’t respond very well. We often make things worse.

Pressing pause allows you to put a little time and space between the trigger and your response. That time and space are incredibly important. Lots of people are thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have time. I don’t have space to take that pause.’ I was talking to a colleague about this the other day, and she said she had been chatting with a guy who ran an armed response unit.

They were finding that they were getting quite a few bad outcomes, and the team felt quite stressed. They trace that back to the fact that when the leader took the call, he became so tense and stressed that that was passed down to the rest of the team, and bad decisions were made. They made one small, simple change. The leader had been reading about the power of taking a pause, and he printed off a pause button and stuck it on the wall.

When that red phone rang with an emergency coming in, he took one or two seconds to ground himself and put his hand on that pause button, which was just enough to remind him to stay out of the stress zone and respond as a thinking human being, as opposed to out of fear and stress. As soon as he started doing that, the outcomes got better, and the errors were reduced, so it was transformational for them. So that was only a few seconds pauses.

Now, in most of our jobs, we can pause for more than a few seconds. Nothing is urgent apart from CPR. You may need to take a 30-second pause, or you can make it a little bit longer. I was listening to a podcast recently with Jill Bolte Taylor, who was a neuroanatomist who had a left brain stroke, and she’s done a TED Talk about how she found herself having to be in her right brain and just the experience of that, so do check out that TED Talk.

She has done a lot of work on what happens when our amygdala flares up and puts us into our threat system. Of course, the amygdala flares, and we get this cascade of neurotransmitters, producing emotions and behaviours. But she discovered that this cascade of neurotransmitters lasts approximately 90 seconds. She has suggested that if we can hold off for 90 seconds to let our physiology come down, we can choose how we want to respond.

We can keep thinking about thoughts that will continue with the stress, or we can choose to do something different, think something different, or even distract ourselves from it. Physiology lasts for about 90 seconds unless you maintain that stress response by ruminating and thinking about that. So how about taking a pause for 90 seconds, and during that 90 seconds, you can give your body a hand at getting back into the parasympathetic.

Remember, the amygdala puts you into your sympathetic system. If you can get back into your rest and digest the parasympathetic system, you will find that you can think with the rest of your human thinking brain, not your amygdala — or your inner chimp, as Dr Steve Peters calls it. So one very simple way to get back into your parasympathetic system is to ground yourself, put both feet on the ground, and do some slow breathing.

Take some deep breaths, in and out. Even just three grounded breaths will help you. If you have time, you can do some box breathing and Google box breathing to find out how to do that. So a couple of options there. You can quickly press the pause button and be aware that you’re pressing pause. You could pause for 90 seconds and ground yourself with some box breathing, or do it a bit longer.

I received an email the other day that put me into the corner, and I know I will not be able to properly answer that email for a few days until I’ve calmed down about it. We are often in the corner. We are in our stress zone about something for longer than we think we are. There is a danger that if we try and respond too quickly, we are still feeling those emotions and feelings that will make things a lot worse.

I remember having to go and give some negative feedback to somebody about a teaching session just after the bank had called me to tell me that someone was trying to access my account and steal a lot of money. I was already in my stress system. I thought I was fine. The conversation with the negative feedback about the teaching session, let’s say, didn’t go very well.

I have learned to notice when I am triggered when I am in that zone, and I put off doing anything that’s going to need empathy. That will need some thinking and real emotional intelligence until I am out of that zone. I have a friend who works in a school, and she told me that the problem with some of these disciplinary methods is that you get a kid who’s behaving a little bit badly, and they get sent out of the classroom.

They’re sitting outside the classroom to calm down, and they are just starting to calm down, maybe after 10 or 15 minutes. Then what happens? The deputy head comes along and goes, ‘Right, what are you doing out here? Right, you better come to the head teacher’s room.’ Then off they are back into their stress zone again. So they sit down in the headset teacher’s office, they might have a few minutes to calm down, and then they get told off again.

So they’ve never had a chance to get into their rational human thinking brain. So make sure you give yourself a long enough pause if it needs to be. Side note: I have noticed that when I think something needs doing very, very urgently, that is the thing that I need to take my time over. So just be aware of that feeling that something must be responded to straightaway because often, that is the thing that you should stop and think about.

So the next thing you can do when you are in that pause is to phone a friend. Get some sense check on this. Say, you know what, that I’ve got this story in my head, this has triggered me. It has upset me. How does it sound to you? You need a trusted friend and one that’s not going to collude with you, someone that could say, ‘Actually, actually, Rachel, I think you’re overreacting. I don’t think they meant anything by it.’

I know I can ask my other half, and he’s very good at bringing me back down to earth and saying, ‘Look, no one’s gonna die right now.’ ‘This is what you just gotta put up with.’ ‘No, they’re not being that unreasonable. I think you are, though.’ So you need someone who’s going to tell you the truth. You can also question yourself, what is the truth here? If you can’t immediately access a friend or a trusted colleague, think, well, what would my best mate, who I trust, their judgement, and what would they say?

What would they do? It could be someone else who is really wise and would know what to do in that situation. So triangulate, triangulate, get out of your head about it, and ask, what is the truth here? Then the other thing you can do in this pause is check in with yourself along the lines of who was the person you want to be. How do I want people to experience me in this situation?

I love that question because it’s not; what should a good professional do here, or what ought a good doctor or what should I do? Who do I want to be? What is congruent with my values? How can I show compassion and empathy? How can I be honest and truthful in this situation? That will help engage your right and left brains and make it a better experience for everybody.

So you’ve got the four P’s here. You’ve got press pause, and that requires recognising when you’re in that stress zone. Sometimes it’s really easy to recognise. Sometimes it’s quite difficult. I remember walking along with a friend, and I was describing a situation to her, and she said, ‘Gosh, Rachel, you’re really angry about this.’ I was quite shocked. I thought, ‘Crumbs. I am, but I hadn’t realised that.’ Also, it took someone else to point that out to me. So recognise you’re in your stress, so press pause.

Second P, parasympathetic zone, ground yourself, get out of your sympathetic into your rest and digest zone where you’ll be able to think much more clearly. Third P, phone a friend, triangulate and ask for their advice if you can’t phone a friend. Just think, actually, what would my friend do? What advice would a wise person give me in a situation?

Then finally, for the fourth P, ask yourself, who is the person I want to be here? So here’s the great news about responding better in stressful situations. The pause button is really easy to do. It’s stopping, taking some timeouts. Anybody can do that. Letting your physiology go back to normal and allowing you to be the compassionate person you already are. It’s not complicated.

It doesn’t require loads and loads of training. It just requires being aware of it. So we have provided a workbook for this. For all our podcasts, we produce CPD workbooks because you need to have a plan in these situations. You have a plan for if somebody collapses in front of you. That’s called basic life support. We need a plan when we get into those stressful situations, which can have significant consequences for us.

So work out what your plan for your four P’s are going to be. How are you going to remember to press the pause button? How are you going to get back into your parasympathetic system? How are you going to phone a friend? How are you going to triangulate and get a sense check on this? Then what questions are you going to ask yourself to determine the sort of person that you want to be, the person you want people to experience you?

So we will put all of this in the workbook, will let you work through it, and we’ll also put a pause button that you can print out or have on the lock screen of your phone to remind you in those situations like that chap, who was that armed response unit lead did. When something stressful happens, you can press that. Take the pause, and I guarantee that will save your bacon on more than one occasion.