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Timeouts: Adults Need Them Too!

August 7, 2019

There’s a fine line between showing a loved one you’re dedicated to working through a sticky issue with them and taking a break from the sticky issue for the greater good. While it’s important to build a tolerance for conflict (i.e. not just run away from it or avoid bringing up issues), timeouts also offer unique advantages when it comes to figuring things out.

The Science Behind Timeouts

When our buttons get pushed and things start to heat up (not in the fun way…), our brains switch gears; that is, we shift from using our evolved prefrontal cortex to using our “Animal Brain”. Let’s take a quick look at how these different parts function:

Calm, Cool, And In Control: Pre-Frontal Cortex


The pre-frontal cortex sits right behind our forehead and is responsible for a special set of skills, including impulse control and emotional regulation, planning, problem-solving and decision-making, and acting with long-term consequences in mind. It helps us take in new information and communicate more effectively with others. In short, the prefrontal cortex helps us work through issues and make healthier life decisions.

The “Animal Brain”

The “Animal Brain” sits at the base of our head. At Unstuck, we call it the “Animal Brain” because it’s been keeping our species alive for a very long time, by sending humans into our instinctive and defensive “fight, flight, and freeze” modes when faced with danger. We can liken fight mode to acting aggressively, like an angry bear ready to attack. Flight mode may be represented by a bunny that quickly bolts away when it perceives danger. And freeze mode might make us look like a lizard (maybe more specifically a chameleon) tensed up with wide eyes, just trying to blend in.

Whether we act like a bear, bunny, or lizard depends on the situation, but many of us more regularly default to one mode over the others because we’ve learned through early experiences that it’s the mode that’s helped us most often.

The Amygdala

A third part of the brain is also relevant to this discussion: the amygdala. Also a really old part of the brain, the amygdala acts like a smoke detector by scanning our environments for threat. (Note that what is threatening to one person may not be threatening to another; we all have different triggers and that needs to be respected). When the amygdala perceives a certain level of danger, it signals our pre-frontal cortex to take a backseat so that energy can be devoted to keeping us safe. It lights up our “Animal Brain” and activates the defense mechanisms associated with it.

Fluffy Dogs Are Nice

What’s unique about the amygdala is that it responds to sensory input, not words. It’s the part of your brain that signals to you that I am indeed mad, when I scowl and yell “I’m not mad!” When our “Animal Brain” is firing, we need to find a way to let our amygdala know that we’re not actually in life-threatening danger. We can do this by stimulating our five senses in ways that are uniquely comforting to us. For example, stimulating my sense of touch by petting my fluffy dog is something that lets my brain know “All is clear! You can settle now!” Similarly, a cup of hot decaf coffee or tea may soothe our brains through the senses of smell, taste, and touch. Listening to music, doing an art project, going for a walk, and lighting a candle while taking a bath are some other ideas. You have to find what works for you and your five senses.

Get Out Of The Red Zone

In short, the amygdala and “Animal Brain” aren’t concerned with using logic to help us out- that’s a prefrontal cortex task. So, even if you’re calm, using reason during conflict with somebody whose “Animal Brain” is firing is unlikely to help the situation.

In other words, it takes just one person in a conflict to be in their “Animal Brain” for verbal communication to be generally ineffective. As noble as your efforts to persist through an issue may be, continuing to talk at somebody who’s in this “Red Zone” just keeps their state of alarm up, and thus stalls productive conversation. We need a minimum of 20 minutes from the time we start calming down for our pre-frontal cortex to come online and then make it possible to really work through whatever issue heated us up to begin with. So, take those breaks!

Rules For Timeouts

Note that a timeout is different from shutting down and freezing the other person out or fleeing from them. Timeouts are an intentional choice, rather than a defensive, animalistic reaction. They also follow a certain set of rules:

  1. Either party can initiate the timeout when they notice that they or the other person is in the “Yellow Zone” (i.e. 3-4/5 level of upset).
    • It’s easier to get to the “Green Zone” (i.e. be calm enough that the prefrontal cortex is online) from the “Yellow Zone”. You don’t always have to wait for the “Red Zone” to hit before taking a break!)
  2. State a specific return time (a minimum of 20 minutes, ideally no more than 60 minutes) and meeting place. For example, “Let’s meet back in the living room at 6:35 and try this again.”
    • This is the most important rule that differentiates a timeout from fleeing! It (1) shows good intention from the person initiating the break, (2) reassures the one being told a break is needed that they’re not being abandoned, and (3) ensures the issue is not being swept under the rug/forgotten!
    • If it’s late and one person is particularly tired, don’t be afraid to go to bed angry. Just be sure to specify when you will reconnect the next day.
  3. Be a stress-reducer, not a distress-maintainer: Timeouts aren’t for strengthening your argument against the other person!
    • Engage your 5 senses in soothing ways (physical movement, drinking a hot beverage, shower/bathe, read/write, listen to music, use aromatherapy, play with a pet, etc.)
  4. A break is a break. Don’t phone or text each other during the timeout.
    • Remember, we say regrettable things when we’re in our “Animal Brain”, which can derail a conversation.
  5. Alternate who gets to leave the home during the timeout if kids are present.
    • It’s unfair for the same person to have to be present for the children while also trying to soothe themselves every time.
  6. Follow through.
    • Build trust by coming back when you agreed to come back. You can always take another timeout if things escalate again. With practice, the need for timeouts will decrease and the ones you do take can become shorter.

We know that relationships are important and they can be very confusing too. If you notice that your anger is getting the better of you, don’t worry we can help. It is possible to enjoy yourself and others. Book your risk-free consultation today and find out how!

Shayla Drewicki R. Psych