The Not-So-Secret Ingredient to Self-Regulation:

Part 1 in the Self-Regulation Series

There is a lot to be said about self-regulation: where it comes from, how it develops, internal versus external motivation, and more. There are many ways to pursue and build self-regulation, from momentary mindfulness strategies to full-on programs that immerse participants in regulating their nervous systems. Some people claim to have the “secret” to learning and practicing self-regulation, but there is one, not-too-complicated, not-so-secret component of all the “secret” strategies: taking a break. It seems simple, and it is. Taking a break is also powerful.

When the human brain gets flooded in any way, whether with tasks, emotions, sensory stimuli, or something else, it becomes hard to access executive functioning. Executive functioning is the set of skills that allows a person to focus, remember instructions, and do several things at the same time (Center on the Developing Child, n.d.). Executive functioning depends on working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Self-control is needed for self-regulation, defined as “ability to monitor and manage your energy states, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in ways that are acceptable and produce positive results such as well-being, loving relationships, and learning” (Your Therapy Source, 2020). What can a person do to regain access to executive functioning and self-control? Take a break.

Taking a break serves many functions. Taking a break reduces the power of overwhelm by creating space (Huebner, 2008). Taking a break can disrupt anxiety and stress that result from amygdala hijack (Day, 2019). During amygdala hijack, the brain typically responds with fight/flight/freeze responses and has less access to the thinking part of the brain (Holland, 2021). A simple break from the situation can increase access to higher level thought, to the executive functioning skills that may have gotten lost in the overwhelm.

Taking a break will not resolve every struggle with self-regulation. There is more to be said about capacity, capability, differences based on neuro-divergence, and more. For those struggling with self-regulation though, taking a break might be a place to start. Taking a break requires no secret formula. It just requires taking time and space away from the problem at hand.


Center on the Developing Child. (n.d.). Executive function and self regulation. Harvard University.

Day, N. (2019, October 19). How to use breaks to teach self-regulation. He’s-extraordinary: Tools for raising an extraordinary person.

Holland, K. (2021, September 17). Amygdala hijack: When emotion takes over. Healthline.

Huebner, D. (2008). What to do when your temper flares: A kid’s guide to overcoming problems with anger. Magination Press.

Your Therapy Source (2020, January 19). What is self-regulation?