Taking a Time-Out

June 23, 2003 at 2:56 pm Leave a comment

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound,
in fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives
with forethought of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.

For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

— Wendell Berry

Summer solstice, the longest day of the year, has recently passed. The longer days of summer, bringing more sunlight, warmth and time spent outdoors, help to lift our spirits. Many people reserve time during the summer to take a vacation, get away, or in some way experience a change of environment and pace. Even so, the challenges of our everyday life persist or are most likely waiting for us when we return.

Just as a vacation can serve as a break from the routine of your day-to-day life, whenever you become aware that you are stressed or angry, taking a “time-out” can shift the progression of either of these two uncomfortable and destructive states of mind and body. A “time-out” may perhaps be the single most useful strategy in stopping the escalation of stress and anger.

McKay, Rogers, and McKay describe the process for taking a “time-out” in their book, When Anger Hurts. Although the authors describe this process based on anger or stress experienced while you are engaged interpersonally, with some simple modifications you can use the same process individually. Here are four steps they suggest as part of this technique:

1. “T” Time:
When you realize that your stress or anger is rising, communicate verbally or through a simple neutral gesture that you need (or want) to take a time-out.

2. Leaving and Returning:
Leave the stressful situation for an agreed period of time. “Agreeing ahead of time will prevent any misconception that this necessary separation is a form of running away or a means of punishing the other person with abandonment.” “It is important to allow yourself an adequate amount of time to cool off. It is even more important to return when the time is up.”

3. While You’re Gone:
While you are away from the stressful situation do something physically challenging that will help to reduce the tension in your body, such as taking a long walk or going for a run. Or use a relaxation technique that works for you, such as abdominal breathing, or meditation. “If angry thoughts come to your mind, let them come. And then let them go. … Don’t hang on to angry thoughts or wasting time building a case. The more you focus on proving how wrong and awful the offender is, the angrier you get. Resist getting stuck in rehearsing what you should say. If you do, you may return more upset than when you left. Don’t drink or use drugs while you’re away. Please don’t drive. Angry drivers are a real danger to themselves and others.”

4. When You Get Back:
“When you come back be sure to ‘check-in.’ More than anything else, this will help to build trust in the relationship. The check-in involves a willingness on both sides to communicate. See if you’re ready to talk about the issue. If not, set a specific time when you’ll be ready to do so. Talking about what made you angry will help you both to reduce the possibility of escalating anger in the future.”

Finally, the authors suggest that “the best way to get into the swing of taking time-outs is to practice when you are not angry. … The more you practice taking time-outs, the easier it will be when the real thing happens.”

For more details about this and related practices, I recommend McKay, Rogers, and McKay’s book: When Anger Hurts, McKay, Rogers and McKay, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.: Oakland, CA (1989)


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