Perhaps it’s the tension in your jaw or the sinking feeling in your belly that is grabbing your attention. Perhaps, you are recognizing the signs of your dinosaur brain pulling you toward flight or fight. You may have a pretty good idea of the likely outcomes of acting on that urge to angrily protect yourself or to exit in a state of panic. Can you recall such a time in the not so distant past? In those times we may need to take a break, to push the pause button, to take a few minutes to reset. This is even more important when we are feeling agitated with those we deeply care about. These are times when we might effectively use timeouts to skillfully retreat and then proceed in a way that can work.
As Alan Fruzzetti, author of The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation, recommends: If your arousal is very high, take a break and work to bring it down before you initiate the conversation…You will be glad you took the extra few minutes to self-regulate and get balanced before moving ahead.
Purpose of Timeout: Take a break. Stop what you are doing for a designated time, so you can cultivate mindful awareness, regulate emotions, and prepare to effectively engage. *This is not to escape or avoid an issue, a person or an unpleasant emotion.
How to Take an Effective Timeout in 3 Steps
Here is my basketball analogy of 3 steps for an effective timeout (DBT skills in italics). When UNC and Duke engage in their classic basketball rivalry, Coach Williams and Coach K will mindfully observe their players during the game. At Step 1, when either team is not effectively executing the game plan, a coach can call a 75 or 30 second timeout. Each team has agreed to this as part of the rules of the game. Note: Both agree to temporarily stop play and one team does not continue play without the other. Neither team is quitting or avoiding playing the game.
Step 2. Each team gathers or “huddles” with their coach who describes the problem (analysis) and suggests solutions to get in synch with the flow of the game. The coaches don’t spend this time berating the other team, rather the focus is on what works. The players become more focused (one-mindful) and calmer (soothing distressed emotion mind). They leave the huddle more organized to effectively participate based on their game plan and goals (value = play to the best of their ability).
Step 3. At the agreed time, each team returns to the court to resume the game. The teams come back. While they may choose to take another timeout, they do not hop on the bus to return to Chapel Hill or Durham. The teams return to the court with a renewed effort to effectively perform, rather than to prove the other team is somehow wrong. Each team aims to do what works.
When we began, I asked you to recall a time when you were about to ineffectively react to a difficult situation prompting you to fight or to flee. Would taking a timeout be useful for you in similar situations? Take a look again at the 3 steps. Consider how you would initiate a timeout, how you would effectively use the time to regulate the intense emotion or urge, and lastly, how you would return and what you would do to promote an outcome more fitting with your goals. DBT offers many helpful skills to increase our mindful awareness, to soothe our heightened arousal, and to initiate more effective behaviors that can replace harmful impulses. See the related blog on Navigating Emotional Obstacles for ideas. To put these steps of effective timeouts into action, here’s a worksheet you can use to create a personal strategy that can work.
May your teamwork triumph!
For more information on upcoming DBT Family Skills Training workshops, please contact John Mader, LMFT, DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician™ at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next: A Morning for Interpersonal Effectiveness, August 25, 2018 and
A Morning for Emotion Regulation and Distress Tolerance, September 29, 2018.