Written by Lindsay Simon, Clinical Director & Owner
Decades of research has shown that one of the most important factors in humans feeling happy and fulfilled in life is having healthy relationships. The healthiness of our relationships is extremely important, thus learning and practicing formulas of communication that lead to improved relationships can be one of the best investments you ever make. In this article, I’ll give a step by step review of one of the most effective formulas that leads to relationships filled with more love, respect, compassion, emotional safety and connection.
It might sound demeaning to learn how to give yourself a time out as an adult, but bear with me, if you try it you will see the massive benefit of this interpersonal effectiveness skill.
It’s important to understand the basics of the brain. The brain is made up of three layers: the brain stem at the bottom, the limbic system (aka the “emotional brain”) in the middle, and the neocortex (aka the “thinking brain”) on top. These layers of brain were developed over the last 2 million years with the oldest part of the brain being the brainstem and the newest part of the brain, the neocortex. The brainstem develops in utero until about age 2, the limbic system develops from in utero until about age 8, and the neocortex develops from about age 8 until about 24 for women and up to 30 years old for men. The brainstem is in charge of unconscious survival drives like hunger, thirst, safety, keeping your heart beating, breathing, lust, rage and fear. The limbic system is where your primary emotions originate, your attachment drives to care for babies, fall in love, and in combination with the brainstem, it generates the “fight or flight” reaction. These more primal brain systems are much older and more powerful than the neocortex when they are triggered. The neocortex is where executive functioning occurs, which includes planning, decision making, negotiation, problem solving, time management, language, empathy, ability to hear and understand others, and important in healthy and respectful communication. The problem is, when we are feeling threatened (whether a real threat or a perceived threat- meaning whether it is a lion chasing you or your fear of disappointing your partner), then our old brain systems take over and we are no longer in a place where healthy communication can occur. When this happens we feel it: our heart rate goes up, body tenses, and we will have much more negative thoughts, black and white or all or nothing thinking, or worst case scenario thoughts. In its extreme, thoughts of suicide can arise.
Once you are emotionally flooded, your limbic system has hijacked the brain, the neocortex is no longer in control and is “off-line.” In this state, our ability to think rationally, negotiate and communicate effectively has gone out the window. Instead, you will have thoughts that are sounding attacking, defending, or fleeing. At this point, in order to not saying something that escalates conflict or that you will later regret, the Adult Time Out is your best option. What is an adult time out? It is giving yourself the time needed to get your neocortex back online. Only when the neocortex is in the driver’s seat can you have healthy communication with your partner, loved one, or co-worker.
As you go through the rest of this article, I suggest having a place to write or type your personalized steps to an adult time out.
Step 1: Recognize that you need a time out. Write down what you experience when your neocortex has been hijacked by the limbic system. If this is hard to identify, think of the last time you started feeling intense anxiety or anger and having negative thoughts. Write down what types of thoughts you experienced and what was being experienced in your body. Research shows that people are not good at identifying when they are emotionally flooded; if you have a way to check your heart rate a general rule of thumb is if you are over 100vbpm then you are emotionally flooded. You usually can notice the all or nothing, attack or defend-type thinking. What are the symptoms you will experience that let you know you need to take action to get your thinking brain back in control? At what level of anger on a 1-10 scale should you use an adult time out?
After reflecting on the above step, I highly recommend you write down your symptoms to look for when you need an adult time out.
Step 2: Announce the time out. This is one of the most important steps and one of the most often forgotten. If you are upset with someone and leave the room without saying anything (even if you know in your head that the purpose is to come back and find a healthy resolution) then it can be considered a form of emotional abuse as it can be a way to gain power back in the conflict and punish the other person. Think of the last time you were really upset with someone and imagine that without saying anything they just walked out. How would that feel? It would likely feel horrible, that’s because leaving without saying anything is a Power and Control move (even if unintentional) and is emotionally harmful to the other person. So pick something that feels comfortable for you to say, such as “I need to cool down, let’s come back to this in 30 minutes” “I need a break, let’s try again in an hour” or “I need a time out, I will check back in in 20 minutes.” The key is to talk to your partner ahead of time so you have a plan that is agreed upon. If you are in a new situation (a new co-worker for example) you can say, “I need to take a break and will come back to this later after I have time to think about it.”
It is important that whoever initiates the time out is responsible for stating a time that they will re-engage and initiates the re-engagement upon the agreed upon time to try again. The recommended time is 20 minutes if you catch the conflict earlier on, 1 hour if the conflict is highly heated. NEVER more than 24 hours. This is so important that you come back to the conflict to try again or your partner will feel abandoned and anxiety will be created around the time out as they will fear the issue never being resolved. Showing up when you say you are going to builds trust in the process and the relationship. The time out will not work if the issue is not re-addressed. You can use the time-out as many times as needed in a discussion. If you are having difficulty with your partner discussing an issue after practicing repeated time-outs it might be time to seek professional help from a trained couples therapist who specializes in an evidence-based form of couples therapy.
Pro-tip: NEVER say “you need a time-out” only use “I need a time out” and remember, if you call the time-out you are responsible for re-engaging the conversation after the agreed upon time.
Write down what sounds like a good fit for you to say when you need a time out and share this plan with your partner.
Step 3: Leave I don’t care where you go, just get out of that space. Of course, if you are in a situation where this would leave a child, dependent or elderly person in danger do not do this. Instead, try to find a way to use your calming skills while making sure they are safe and cared for. This might be a conversation ahead of time with your spouse on how you can work together to support each other’s new emotion regulation skills. Ideally, if you can go outside or to a calm space that is best.
Write down ideas of where you can go in different situations (work, home, home with and without kids) when you might need a timeout.
NOTE, DO NOT: drive, drink, or do drugs – all of these exacerbate the situation and increase the risk of harm to yourself and others.
Step 4: Calm down In order to clam down, it is crucial that you do NOT THINK ABOUT THE SITUATION. Your only task is to calm your body down, meaning get your heart rate down (below 100 bpm). Use distraction skills and self soothing. If you try to think about the situation before you are fully calm, you will only come up with solutions that are attack, defend or withdraw and you will likely later regret. This is when your limbic system is still in control, so all your solutions will be extreme and survival based. To calm down, try: going for a walk or any other kind of exercise (bi-pedal movement has been shown to rapidly decrease stress hormones), play a video game, read a book, watch a TV show, listen to a guided meditation, do a Sudoko puzzle, listen to music, play music, write music, practice belly breathing, call a friend and ask how they are doing (do not talk about your problem at this stage- or if you do at all say you don’t want to talk about it), watch Youtube videos you’ve been wanting to watch that are distracting, take a shower, play with your pet, etc. I think you get the point. Get your mind off the upsetting situation to give your body time to stop producing stress hormones so your neocortex can get back to full functioning.
Write down a list of what might work for you in different situations (ex: work, home, relative’s house)
Step 5: Reflect and think about what just happened. Now that you are calm, sit down and journal about what happened. It is key to write this out; putting things down on paper helps us to process and clarify our thoughts and feelings. Here is a format to help you:
- Situation: write down the facts to the situation as if you were a fly on the wall watching it, no inferences or opinions, just the facts of what happened (example “I walked in the house and she stated “Did you pick up the milk”, NOT I walked in and she started nagging me right off the bat, FACTS only)
- Feelings: what did you feel, both physical and emotional. Physical sensations can include increased heart rate, tightness in chest, clenched fists. Emotions are one word answers: sad, hurt, angry, frustrated, upset, inadequate
- Thoughts: examine the thoughts that were going through your head, as if you were a cartoon and there were a bubble above your head that read what the words in your brain were saying, write these down. Example “she always nags me” is a thought – an unhelpful thought that led to the negative emotional experience. I list emotions above thoughts because those are easier to recognize, but the reality is that often thoughts precede emotions unless it is a learned emotional response to a situation such as jumping every time you hear a loud noise if you have been in a combat. (for extra credit you can Google search cognitive distortions and label the thoughts as well)
- Urges: what were the urges you had? These are the negative automatic urges of fight or flight that come from the old brain systems. Just because we have them doesn’t make them real or valid, they are just urges and we get to choose the meaning we give to them.
- Actions: write down what actions you actually took (hopefully a time out!)
- Think about what outcome you would like that would help resolve the negative feelings around this issue. What is it that you specifically want to ask of your partner/co-worker?
Step 6: Most Important Step!!!! Final Step!!! You MUST go back and talk about the issue and resolve it. Reminder: a recommended amount of time for a time out is 20 minutes to 1 hour. Timeouts should never be 24 hours, as this can trigger abandonment and your partner might not trust the process. The key to this working is you go back and resolve the conflict. You can start by using the “I statements” formula.
- I felt _______________________ (fill in with what emotion(s) you felt, one word answers only, NO “I feel like” or “I feel that”, which automatically turns it into a thought, not a feeling)
- When ______________________ happened, (fill in with the facts of the situation- if I were a fly on the wall what would I have seen or heard, be specific)
- So what I think would help now and/or in the future is _____________________ (fill in whatever your need or want is, be soft in your approach with I appreciates, thank you’s, calm tone)
Here are several examples:
I felt scared and angry when you came home two hours after you told me you would be home and had not called or texted me to let me know. What I would like is understanding and validation that this situation would lead me to feel scared, and re-assurance that you will text me in the future when you realize you are going to be late. Do you think that is a realistic solution?
I felt frustrated when I came home and the first thing you said to me was “Did you pick up the milk”. It makes me feel unappreciated and disconnected from you and defensive right when I see you. What I think would help is if in the future we greet each other with hugs, kisses and a warm hello before asking about whether tasks got done or not. I think it might also help if when I do get groceries there is appreciation shown. I know I can work on that too.
I encourage anyone looking to improve their relationships and quality of life to keep working on themselves and seek the experience and knowledge of a professional if you feel stuck on your own. Communication skills are just one of many areas of improvement that a skilled therapist can help you with. The actions we choose define who we are, not our thoughts. And with work and practice, you can change your response to conflicts to be more positive and loving.