Learning to Pause

  • Learning to Pause – Introduction
  • Why You Need to Learn to Pause
  • Recognising What is Happening
  • Overcoming Difficulties

Learning to Pause – Introduction

Using pause as a strategy to help us with thinking and communication after a brain injury is useful in many ways.

If you regularly say things without thinking or find that you ‘gap fill’ a lot, it can help to try and learn to give yourself time to think.

It sounds like an easy thing to do but your auto-pilot will think it has a handle on things and will fire off before you get a chance to consider what is happening.

The primal areas of the brain responsible for our fight/flight instincts have one primary objective – to sustain life. It is this survival mechanism that takes over our functioning after a brain injury. 

Why You Need to Learn to Pause


‘Metacognition’ is an executive skill.

We know it is working when we feel as though our brain is supported by the ‘inner thinking voice.’ Pause for a moment and see if you are aware of what you are thinking right now. 

Do you understand what you have read so far in this section?

Was reading this section so far relatively easy for you, or did you find ‘keeping up’ hard work?

Did you read the words okay but struggled with knowing what they meant to you?

Even when there is no immediate demand on us, such as when we are reading, the injured brain might still struggle to take in and process information.

If you have problems with reading, it may be that you can read, but can’t relate to the information because your ability to be ‘aware of your awareness’ isn’t working.

Some people and can still notice what they are thinking in relative time after a brain injury. For example, they will know or be aware of the fact that they know what they are reading as they read it – it will make sense to them.

They will also what they are thinking as they are doing things and will be able to structure conversations and actions in real-time. In effect they will be able to pause if they realise they have been asked a question they don’t know the answer to.  

It is possible more people are affected by the inability to hear their ‘inner narrator’ than we realise. If you don’t know what you are thinking of as you are doing, then it is likely you won’t be aware of this other than feeling as though some part of you has got lost.

You might know something is missing, but not know what it is. You may feel as though your subconscious mind isn’t supporting you. 

Because the ‘inner self’ still feels familiar we don’t always notice that what we are doing and saying does match what this inner self intended.

It can be very hard noticing that our higher-order thinking skills aren’t working as they should do. Signals emitted from the primal brain should pass through the neocortex and frontal lobes before action or response to stimuli happens. 

When the pathways aren’t working and there is damage to the executive systems in the frontal lobes, what comes out is a rudimentary version of what we expect. 

It takes a long time for the brain to rewire and for us to be able to think about what we are thinking – effectively being able to ‘hear’ the inner narrator as we used to. 

Learning to pause, can help you become aware of your inner thinking voice again

Recognising What is Happening

What other ways are useful in helping us work out if our metacognition is working or not?

You will know if you have problems if:

  • you regularly say you can do things that you can’t
  • you say things that you wish you hadn’t
  • what you intended to say didn’t match what you actually said
  • you are often reliant on other people to give you feedback
  • you talk about topics other people haven’t broached
  • you miss the points others are trying to make
  • you don’t think things through before you act or don’t know how to think things through
  • you don’t always appreciate dangers associated with your activities
  • you don’t always know what you were thinking
  • you feel a strong desire to fit in and keep up that you didn’t have before
  • you are like a bull in a china shop but have no awareness of this until afterwards

In many ways, our inner narrator acts as the ‘in-the-moment’ planner and organiser. It helps us to have awareness of what is happening in real time and to know what we need to do next. 

When it is working we will be aware of what other people are saying – as they are saying it. 

The inner narrator or thinking voice in our head gives us a strong feeling of us being who we are as we are doing or saying – it feels like ‘us’ and provides us with a sense of self and being present. 

When it isn’t working, we often feel a sense of panic or anxiety when we are trying to do something or communicate with someone. Very often, we won’t have any idea about why we feel panicky or worried – we just recognise that we are.

It can feel as though the biological systems are stepping in without us ever having thought any worrying or pessimistic thoughts.

If this sounds familiar, using reflective techniques and teaching ourselves to pause will help this thinking voice to start working again. 

Overcoming Difficulties

Sometimes a pause isn’t possible because this would mean someone else may have to wait a while for an answer. This can make us feel uncomfortable’ but usually the other person will be okay with waiting.

It can help if you avoid situations where there may be some urgency to respond or act while you teach yourself to add in breathing spaces.  You need to slow your sponsoring thoughts down enough to be able to be aware of and consider them before delivery.  This takes practice and patience.

If the communication is important or you want to get certain points across, it is better to say that you need to ‘sleep on it,’ or that you need time to think, rather than inadvertently causing more problems that you may not even be aware of.

It seems like a paradox that things are happening too fast and yet the processing brain is slow. The reality is that the primal brain is firing unfiltered ‘output’ on all cylinders, and the frontal lobes are slow at processing what is coming in. 

It is little wonder that we can often think it is the other person who has the wrong end of the stick. Our output is at a natural speed but unfiltered by our preferences, and with incoming information problems with memory make it difficult to find supporting data to relate to. 

Pausing gives us time to reflect on what we want to achieve or what we want to get across so that we communicate more successfully.

Learning to pause a a bit of a catch-22.

You need the functioning of the higher-order thinking skills to know when you want to pause and you need these skills to let you know what questions to ask yourself so that you can become aware of what you need to do next – such as pause. 

Be prepared for this strategy to take time to learn.

Use physical or visual clues to help you slow your ‘outgoing’ world down. Learning to pause gives us a chance to relate to what we are about to say before we say it. Pausing helps us know if our responses are appropriate or not. 

What you are looking for is something that will remind you to pause or take a break, such as stopping when you feel overwhelmed, begin to feel frustrated or realise you haven’t understood something. 

You could also try practising watching for changes in the other person, such as irritation or exasperation that you aren’t understanding. If they tell you something isn’t working right – this is a good time to pause and ask for a break.

The other person might not want to take the time to explain things to you and may have time constraints or other priorities to deal with. If this is the case ask them to write down what they want you to understand when they have the time to so that you can consider it in your own time and pick back up on the conversation later. 

If someone needs you to make an urgent decision and you feel muddled or as though you can’t process what you need to in the time a brief pause or intake of breath will help you understand this. You may need to let the other person know they will have to decide for you. 

When you do take time out to reflect, you can try and ‘walk through’ whatever you remember. Try and notice gaps, and imagine how the scenario would have worked if everything had gone as you intended. This help you brain to complete processing rather than leaving it trying to work out unfinished business without your conscious input.