We take breaks when we are very upset to down-regulate our emotions. The whole purpose of the break is to reduce the intensity of your emotional activation because that makes it much more likely that you can have a constructive conflict with the other person. Unfortunately, lots of us weren’t taught how to do this as children or young people. We were punished, isolated and ridiculed for behaviour that was unwanted, but not taught how to honour our emotions or to reduce their intensity when we needed to. This, frankly, sucks a lot. Emotions give us a lot of really important information about ourselves and the world around us. They are critical to keeping ourselves safe and learning how to treat ourselves consensually. We all deserve an education that includes learning about how to understand our emotions and how to soothe ourselves.
Fortunately, there are ways to learn emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills. Like learning anything, they take practice and they take some figuring out what works for you. The fact is, we are all different and some things will work better for some folks than for others. I’ve talked about some distress tolerance skills in this previous article. If you have a really hard time working on emotion regulation or distress tolerance I highly recommend working with someone that teaches dialectical behaviour therapy skills, especially in groups. I’ve been running DBT groups for a few years now, particularly with disabled and neurodiverse folks, and I learn something every single session.
The first thing to say about down-regulating distress or intense emotions in a conflict is that you need to focus on your distress/emotion as the emergency, not the issue that the conflict centers on. This means that it is helpful to try to move your attention away from thoughts about who is right, what the facts are and what happened. While these things might be important at some later point, thinking about them is likely to increase your distress and intensify whatever emotions you are feeling. Rather, it is helpful to move the focus to the emotion itself.
My favourite way to reduce my activation is really simple. I use a skill from the dialectical behaviour therapy TIPP skills group. The T in TIPP is for temperature and its great for folks that don’t mind the cold and don’t have medical conditions that might react poorly to a rapid change in temperature. I fill a bowl with very cold water, and then I lean over and put my face into it for 30 seconds (taking a breath if I need to). It sounds really wacky, but it works on a physiological level to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. This rapidly down-regulates emotion, but only for a short period. There are lots of resources on how/why to use this skill. This is a podcast that I made about it and here are some youtube video’s from others.
Another way to reduce your distress is to distract yourself. You can do this by moving your attention to something else that is very absorbing for you. This could be by talking to someone, watching an episode of your favourite series, writing in your journal, listening to music, or whatever it is that you use to take your mind off distressing things. In order for it to be distracting in the midst of conflict you might find that the other activity has to be really intense – or that it needs to have multiple layers of stimulation (sound, sight, touch, taste, smell). You may find using a stim toy useful.
If you are someone that is practiced at mindfulness, you might find some spoken mindfulness exercises helpful. I especially like doing mindfulness of current thoughts, though it is difficult to manage in the middle of a conflict sometimes if my distress is very high, and I’d most often try it after dunking my head in a bowl of water. If my emotion is no longer too overwhelming I might also try to emotion surf, using this exercise.
If you’re a person who has a really hard time taking breaks, you might need to spend time working out what you need to make a break ‘safe enough’. Safety strategies might include having somewhere to go in order to de-escalate. Having a specific person to talk to when you’re having a break (NOT YOUR PARTNER!!). It could be that you need to do some specific activities to regulate your emotions or a series of these. Some folks find it helpful to start with a shower, and then move on to a 5 senses activity to ground them in the present moment.
Whatever you do, try to make sure that this time is spent calming your emotion. Our relationships are nearly always healthier if we have our own self-soothing skills that don’t depend on our partner (even if they depend on contacting others or having a ritual already written out because our executive function falls apart when we are distressed). If you don’t yet have these skills, don’t despair. They are not skills we are born with. They are skills we have to learn and develop and deliberately grow – like we might our muscles when learning a new sport. There are a LOT of ways that you can do that. As I’ve said, my personal favourite is working through DBT distress tolerance skills courses with other marginalised folks, but it is far from the only way to learn how to de-escalate intense emotions. If you are having a hard time with this, speaking to a therapist might be a good idea, because it will strengthen your relationships and your ability to manage distressing events.