Psychology Tools: How to Take a “Time Out”
January 11, 2014

Taking a “time-out” is a classic, anger management tool (but it can also be applied to any other heightened emotional state).  It sounds simple – and it is on an intellectual level – but it can be quite challenging to implement in the heat of the moment.

A time-out basically involves removing yourself from a triggering situation, so you have time to cool off and gain clearer perspective.  It is not a means of blowing somebody off during an argument, but is actually a healthy way to manage anger (or another strong emotion) before it gets out of control.

When emotions are riding high, communication becomes less clear and healthy. Taking time to calm oneself can open up the door to re-enter a productive dialogue or perform another essential task at hand.

How do you use a time-out?

A time-out can happen on an informal level, where you essentially just take a break from a charged situation. For example, say you’re reading an upsetting email and you find yourself getting angrier with each word.  Instead of quickly reacting and sending off a terse reply, you can take a time-out and return to the email after you’ve calmed down some.  A time-out in this situation simply involves a conscious decision to put your attention on something besides the anger provoking issue. For example, you can take a few minutes to do something mindless like play a video game or surf the web and then later return to draft your email.

The more formal way to use a time-out is outlined below.

1.) The first step involves identifying ways that you can take a time-out.

If you’re at home, for example, and you start to get heated, can you go to another room or go outside?  Where can you go where you’ll have some time to yourself, to gather your thoughts?

If you’re at work when the anger is triggered, can you go for a walk or go to the break room?

Typically, a time-out is done on a physical level, where you actually go somewhere else, like into another room or outside.  For obvious reasons, it’s good to avoid potentially harmful time-outs that involve alcohol or driving.

You want to think about benign options ahead of time because when the anger rises, it’s usually harder to think clearly.

2.) Second, you will likely need to inform others that you will resort to this option from time to time and explain the purpose for doing so.

Communicating this ahead of time is a way of being assertive and avoiding any confusion that others might feel about your behavior. This is particularly important if you’re taking a time-out to diffuse arguments with your significant other.   As you may know, it can be very upsetting if you’re arguing with somebody and they suddenly walk away without saying anything.  This can actually provoke more anger on the other person’s part, out of feelings of disrespected and abandonment.

So, let your significant other know that you’re going to use this strategy and that you will re-connect to finish the dialogue once you’ve cooled off.  It can be good to agree upon a set time ahead of time, whenever possible. Something like, “I’m getting angrier as we talk and want to avoid a blow-out…so I need to take a time-out.  Maybe we can talk again in another hour?”

It will be important to make sure both members of the couple are in agreement about the time-out process before actually trying it.

3.) Monitor your level of anger

In order to implement a healthy time-out, you will need to increase awareness of your anger level, so that you can catch yourself before you hit the boiling point, where you might say something hurtful or engage in physically violent behavior.

Using something like the anger meter tool [LINK] can help increase your awareness of when and how your anger rises.

Again, the key is to catch yourself before you engage in destructive, hurtful behavior triggered by feelings of anger.  Taking a time-out can help you do just that.

4.) Take the time-out

As mentioned, be explicit about taking a time-out if the triggering situation involves an interaction with another person, like your spouse.

During the time-out, try to find ways to calm yourself and let go of whatever triggered the anger.   See the post on communication skills for couples [LINK] to get some ideas on how to calm oneself and think about ways to re-engage in a more productive, healthy manner.

5.) When you return from the time-out

Stick to your agreement to return at a specified time, if you discussed that with your partner.  At that time, if you feel that you’ve calmed down considerably, then go ahead and re-engage in a problem-solving discussion.

If you find that you’re still pretty heated and can’t do this, then take ownership of your emotional state and let the other know that you’re going to need more time.

Again, keep in mind that when emotions are riding high, communication is usually not that fruitful.  So, neither one of you is benefitting by forcing the other to keep hashing things out when in this state.

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