We have the power to choose who and how we want to be in the world each and every moment, regardless of what external circumstances we find ourselves in. — Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
The first 90 seconds after an upsetting event are crucial for choosing who we want to be and how we present ourselves.
If we pay attention, we can feel a distinct physical response in our bodies when stress hits: an elevated heart rate, flushed cheeks, our pulse pounding in our ears. This is because of chemicals released by our brains, prompting us to fight, flee, or freeze – a reaction that goes way back to a time when predators were a real and constant threat, and biological instincts offered us our best chance at survival.
Today, the high-stress situations we experience in our modern world are more about arguments with our loved ones, frustration at traffic and long lines, or bad news that turns an otherwise peaceful day sideways.
With our highly-developed brains, we can also choose a response other than fighting, freezing or running away like our ancient ancestors.
In this post, I want to share with you a powerful tool that comes from the work of Harvard-educated neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor. She calls it the 90-Second Rule, and here’s why it’s so effective.
As Dr. Taylor explains:1 it takes no longer than 90 seconds for stress hormones to flood and clear your system. When you feel outrage as a reaction to a situation, for example, adrenaline rushes through your body for up to 90 seconds, and then it’s gone.
Now, here’s where it gets really interesting.
For most of us, the emotional reaction continues long after the 90-second period has passed. This is because of the connection between our thoughts, emotions and brain chemistry. Our bodies stop producing stress hormones after 90 seconds only if we are able to pull our thoughts away from whatever stimulated the emotion to begin with.
As long as we keep stewing over the situation, our emotions keep churning and our brains keep flooding our bodies with adrenaline.
So, each time we have an emotional reaction, we choose whether to keep the emotional feedback loop going after 90 seconds and let our stress hormones continue flooding in, or whether to stop our emotional reactivity.
But how do we stop, how do we simply not think about something that just happened, especially if it tripped a particularly touchy trigger?
In her work, Taylor points out that if we can observe this response rather than engage with it, we have a lot more power over what we express in the world when we’re under pressure.
When your emotions are surging, 90 seconds can feel like a long time. So, one trick Dr. Taylor suggests2 is to look at the hand of a clock as soon as you feel your emotional reaction rise. (I’ll add that if there’s no dial nearby, you can try grabbing your phone and pulling up the stopwatch function.)
The act of looking at the elapsed time alone may be enough to remind you to observe rather than engage. If you can wait out the reaction, then you will feel less stressed. If you continue engaging in the same thoughts, leading to the same reactive emotions, then you’ll stay in the loop.
Put very simply, this is the choice you make each time you experience an emotional reaction.
These are the same concepts I talk about mastering with the simple practice of posture, breath and mind. When we allow ourselves to pause and breathe, we create space for that same 90-second emotional de-escalation Dr. Taylor discusses – where we can clearly assess what we’re feeling and allow those emotions to diminish in intensity before we even begin to formulate a response.
The next time you find yourself triggered, consider practicing the 90-second rule, as follows.
- When stress hits and you feel yourself launching into full-on fight-or-flight mode, try pressing “Pause” on your impulse to react.
- For a full 90 seconds, do nothing but pay attention to your breathing. As you breathe, allow yourself to feel the tension in your shoulders ease a little. Continue concentrating only on your breath and shoulders, until you begin to feel calmer and more clear-headed.
- If you continue to breathe and relax your tension but you aren’t feeling any calmer, notice if your mind is busy rehashing the upsetting event. If so, press “Pause” again, this time on your thoughts. Be aware that each time these thoughts creep in, you will likely need to wait another 90 seconds before you will start to feel calm.
When you wait a full 90 seconds in response to the situation confronting you, you can avoid getting caught up in the loop of thoughts that further stimulate your emotions. You can let the flood of stress hormones wash through you, then move on, keeping the potential emotional reaction in check.
Of course, there will be times when waiting out your reaction will be much easier said than done, so be realistic. Know that it will take some practice to implement this rule successfully, especially when you’re dealing with chronic stress or situations with really high emotional stakes.
That said, even when you can’t manage to calm yourself in 90 seconds, breathing and relaxing your shoulders will always keep you aimed at that goal. Getting there just might take longer than you’d like.
Patience can be the hardest thing especially when you’re upset, so remember to be gentle and compassionate with yourself while you develop the skills you’ll need to restore your calm.
If you find you’re able to practice even one full 90-second “Pause” this week, I’d love to hear about it! I hope you’ll leave a comment and let me know how it went for you.
Take good care : )
P.S. If you haven’t heard of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, her TED Talk, My Stroke of Insight is well worth a watch. She provides a riveting and highly informative account of what it was like as a brain scientist to experience her left hemisphere shutting down as a result of a stroke – as well as the inspiring epiphany that came out of it.