Maybe you’re on a phone interview for the perfect job opportunity, or maybe your in-laws are due to show up any minute.
To deal with these everyday stresses and anxieties, we often subconsciously pace back and forth with no destination or clear goal in mind. But what causes pacing, and can it help ease our mood?
“Pacing is a behavioural signal to tell yourself that you’re too overwhelmed,” Sunna Jung, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in anxiety and trauma, tells Mashable. “It could be a signal trying to teach you about something that’s happening in your internal state, or it can be a form of distraction in the moment to calm yourself down.”
On a basic level, Jung believes pacing is a way to release muscular tension or discomfort. Your body is sending a signal to your brain that it’s uncomfortable: “Pay attention; something isn’t right.” When it comes to anxiety, pacing could be our mind and body’s attempt at relief.
While anxiety can range from temporary anxious feelings to a serious illness, it’s incredibly common. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. — 40 million American adults (18% of the population) suffer from anxiety. And although it’s highly treatable, only one-third receive treatment.
Pacing isn’t exclusive to anxiety either; it can be a symptom of depression (though, nearly half of those diagnosed with depression also live with an anxiety disorder, according to the ADAA), as well as ADHD and autism (as a repetitive body movement).
When it comes to everyday anxiety, pacing might help you stay calm and collected on that phone interview, concentrate more when making a decision and feeling more comfortable by the time your in-laws arrive.
But are there any drawbacks?
“When you’re in a state of distraction, and you’re staying away from the actual sensation or memory or thoughts you’re trying to keep at bay, it can place you in a state of constant anxiety without any kind of real resolution it can place you in a state of constant anxiety without any kind of real resolution,” Jung says.
Pacing is just one of several bodily reactions to stress and anxiety, like twitching or stomach discomfort. And while pacing is one of the most common, it might not help anything either, depending on your source of discomfort.
Jung’s patients spend more time in their heads, ruminating — which is similar to pacing in its repetitive nature. Pacing, she says, is not very harmful and common enough that her patients don’t talk about it much or do it in the room with her. Ruminating, on the other hand, can be harmful; spending too much time thinking about something, even when there’s no resolution, can make it worse.
That’s why, when we pace, we should be more mindful of what we do and think about.
“Notice each footfall as it hits the ground, and notice how the body is responding to it … That awareness, over time, brings you more stability and more self-regulation,” she says. Pacing isn’t something psychologists “prescribe,” of course, but “in that case, it really wouldn’t be pacing any longer. It would be a mindful way of taking steps, both metaphorically and physiologically. It would be a mindful way of taking steps, both metaphorically and physiologically, toward understanding the internal activities that are going on in that moment.”
Jung tells her patients to pay attention to the physicality of anxiety: heart rate, temperature, tightness in the chest, or tension in their shoulders and legs. But just as important is using external tools — things that will ground them. Plants and pets at home, a photograph or meaningful object at work, anything with a warm connection that allows them to feel more present to who they are.
“We all experience anxiety at different points in our lives, and it’s really how we respond to it that’s important,” Jung says. “That’s what’s going to get us through those difficult moments.”
Next time you find yourself pacing back and forth, try some of Jung’s tips — and you might just feel better, faster.