How often do your feelings overtake you?
How often do emotions such as sadness, anger, fear or shame emerge, then wind up disrupting the next hour, afternoon or evening?
“Feelings are like ocean waves,” says psychologist Alyson Stone, “they rise, crest and recede, all day long.” We can all relate. But according to brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, these waves last just 90 seconds. After that, we’re simply re-stimulating our internal circuitry.
Explains Taylor: “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
She goes on: “Something happens in the external world, and chemicals are flushed through your body which puts it on full alert. For those chemicals to totally flush out of the body, it takes less than 90 seconds. This means that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological reaction, over and over again.”
Sarah Chauncey weighs in: “What keeps emotions lingering are the stories we tell ourselves about them ... Because we humans are story-making machines, we often tend to interpret our body’s signals as emotions, when in fact, they’re just ... processes, happening. They will pass – unless we attach a story to them and keep them alive.”
Chauncey cites two popular refrains, which, though playful, may help us make sense of our emotional lives:
1. Brains are Teflon for positive experiences, Velcro for negative; and
2. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
Helping children manage their emotions
To help children build resilience, Fiona Forman, who recently launched a mental health educational program for 8-12 year olds, has “devised a strategy for dealing with stress and strong emotions.” She calls it N.A.B.B.: name the strong emotion, accept the strong emotion, breathe, and connect to your body as you breathe, “try to feel your breath going right down to your feet.”
How important is the 90-second rule?
“If you want to thrive in this world,” says Dr. Bryan Robinson, author and Professor Emeritus at UNC-Charlotte, “the 90-second rule offers a mindful way to override your hardwired survival reflex of reaction and cope with life’s unexpected events – no matter how dire the circumstances – in a calmer, healthier, more mature way.”
Adds Meg Coyle, Founder of One Body Inc. (she offers a free online course called “Practical Pathways to Inner Peace”): “When we allow ourselves to pause and breathe, we create space for that same 90-second emotional download Dr. Taylor discusses. ...
Consider practicing the 90-second rule this week. When stress hits and you can feel yourself launching into full-on fight or flight mode, go back to the principle of the pause. Inhale. Exhale. And allow yourself to feel the tension in your body ease, without expecting yourself to respond immediately to the situation confronting you.”