It’s such a natural habit that, most of the time, we don’t even realize that we’re doing it: pacing back and forth.
“Pacing is a behavioral signal to tell yourself that you’re too overwhelmed,” says psychologist Sunna Jung, Ph.D. “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.”
Different psychologists and experts have tried, over the years, to come up with explanations for the human behavior. Jung finds it to be one way that the human body tries to alleviate stress through movement and muscle activation. She sees pacing and similar activities as something a person should see as a sign of anxiety.
There are many levels of stress and anxiety, ranging from momentary feelings to full-blown depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) considers it the most common “mental illness” in the United States. Pacing is also a characteristic behavior of people suffering from ADHD or the more serious autism.
Although most people who find themselves pacing might not be beset by a serious illness, can it still be hurting them? “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,” says Jung.
Pacing, only one of several nervous bodily responses, is not overtly harmful but also not helpful in any way. Jung, however, advocates being conscious of our actions. “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. Similarly, according to Jung, we should all pay attention to our bodies and what’s going on in them during times of stress. Do we experience a higher heart rate? Tightness of muscles? Pain? Once noticing those responses, we should think about how to respond and calm ourselves.