Dr. Randi Gray
Healthy Ways to Take A Time Out
Updated: Feb 21
Stepping away from a stressful situation or conversation can increase the likelihood that you will be able to manage that experience successfully. There is something very important to realize about how your brain works when it is experiencing high emotions.
When you are in a situation or an experience that has resulted in high emotion, your brain begins to shut down the thinking, rational, and logical part of your brain.
That part of your brain that we need to problem solve, effectively implement conflict resolution, maintain healthy communication, or produce well-thought-out action plans goes offline during moments of high emotion.
Once that part of your brain has left the building, we are left with the part of the brain that is reactive and impulsive. You can imagine the types of emails, texts, or conversations that result from this process! Typically, when you respond with the reactive and impulsive part of the brain, it produces those moments that we look back on and wonder why we did what we did.
Here is where taking a break can be such a significant tool. If you tell yourself that when you
are experiencing high emotion, you do not make any choices at that moment; you do not send an email, make a phone call, or even continue a conversation. You first have to take that break, create a pause, and allow yourself a time out. When you step away from that high-emotion moment, you will give yourself time for that big emotion to come down. Once that big emotion comes down, the rational, logical, and thinking part of your brain will be accessible to you. One of the purposes of taking a break is to allow that process to occur.
I once read a study where they had two groups of couples. They instructed one group to change nothing about how they communicated. They instructed the second group to take a break when they noticed one or both were “getting heated” or experiencing a big emotional reaction during their conversations.
The outcome of the study concluded that the couples who made that one change of taking a break increased the successful outcomes of their communication. Of course, with this example, the couple has to identify the time associated with the break. You do have to return to the conversation within that time to facilitate safety and trust.
Still, when you use it for yourself in high-emotion moments, you get to decide individually how long you need before you return or respond to that moment. I generally try to give it 24 hours when I can before I decide if I really need to send that email or make that phone call.
Now what you do during your time out does matter. Sometimes if you are following the 24-hour rule, the time itself will help your big emotion to lessen and the thinking part of your brain to return. Not all situations allow for that much time, so what you do with your break is essential. You must be plugging in healthy coping skills, emotional regulation skills, and self-care during your time out.