The 90 Second Rule

Every thought that we think causes a chemical reaction and the reaction to it creates a physical response.

How severe this response is comes down to our perception of the situation.

If we repeat words in our minds, giving a running dialogue to our thoughts, and we then add visuals, we produce our own unique illustrated storybook.

When this storybook is repeatedly read over and again it can cause the smallest spark in our mind to explode out of control until it significantly affects our bodies.

We have all behaved in ways that we aren’t too proud of and we have all got caught up in the moment. When we allow our emotions to temporarily overwhelm us we risk reacting impulsively, irrationally and out of character.

I heard about 90-second emotions through Pema Chödrön, when she explained that if you allow an emotion to exist for 90 seconds without judging it, it will disappear. Chödrön describes this feeling as “the hook” as our thoughts hook, line and sink us. Chödrön’s recommendations led me to discover brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.

Taylor describes the 90-second rule as, “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.”

All emotions last for less than 90 seconds, Taylor explains. If anything continues after that it is because we have added our own story and, consciously or subconsciously, chosen to hold on to the emotion. Therefore, we are causing our emotions to escalate further and we are also ensuring they last longer. The more often we replay the memory attached to a thought, or repeat one of our old painful stories, we remain caught in the cycle and it becomes more and more difficult to disconnect.

According to Taylor, if we are aware that emotions take 90 seconds to surge through our system we can simply allow them to naturally pass and flush out. If we choose to fight the emotion we emphasize it further and then we will need to fight it again and again, and by then the emotion will have the power to control us.

When we have awareness that all emotions initially last for 90 seconds we can allow them to ripple through us, causing a wave without any resistance; and let them go without causing further reaction. If we allow emotions to naturally pass through we can look at what story we might have attached to the emotion to heighten its effects and trigger us to respond.

This process allows us to look at why we repeat similar patterns of behavior and what causes our emotions to escalate.

We can then make conscious choices about our emotions so we are empowered and can override an emotion when it takes a hold, rather than subconsciously reacting due to the red mist or rose tint that alters our perception.

We have a choice whether to master and assert self-control and patiently wait out the 90 seconds while the emotion intensifies, dissolves and passes. Or, whether we allow it to cause an inferno in our minds so that it powerfully gains momentum until it eventually rages inside us.

To override our emotions we must first pay attention to the physical changes that take place just as the emotion is engaged. We will experience sensations, such as; our muscles tensing, an increased pulse, shortness of breath, our face flushing and our vocal cords tightening. When all of this takes place we should remain alert so we are consciously aware that our emotions are at risk of escalating and we can remain in control as to what happens next.

At this stage if we remain calm, grounded, fully present and balanced, we can try to remove any irrational thoughts that occur and begin to inhale and exhale deeply for around 90 seconds, thus giving the chemical surge the opportunity to pass.

As the emotions rise up it is essential to look at how we are feeling and what emotions are evoked. Remind ourselves that the moment will pass and any emotional response after that is one that we choose.

If we can name the emotions as they occur and look at how they are powerful enough to ignite a physical reaction, we will weaken the risk of them becoming further strengthened and taking control.

Then we can look with clarity at how we would normally perceive it. We can then rewire our thinking, so rather than fueling the emotion we can soothe it with kind and loving words. If we might normally berate ourselves and feel frustrated by noisily saying things like, “I’m such a fool,” we can instead show ourselves compassion by choosing caring expressions such as, “I’m constantly learning and I forgive myself.”

When we become enraged or our emotions surge and heighten we can show understanding and be compassionate to ourselves and others so that our emotions will dissipate as quickly as they began.

By paying attention and incorporating the 90 second rule into our lives we can not only take accountability for how we are behaving, we can alter the patterns of behavior we display. We can then avoid being triggered by age-old irritations that sneak up on us momentarily and grip hold of us not just for a moment or two, but recite themselves over and over so they control us for years.

Recycling pain is known in the Buddhist tradition as samsara. With a very simple concept, we can choose whether we escape the pain or whether we suffer with it for a lifetime. When we understand what lies beneath each of our emotions and we have succeeded in mastering them, we can trust ourselves entirely.

“Pay attention to what you are thinking, and then decide if those are thoughts that are creating the kind of life you want created,” she says. “And if it’s not, then change your thoughts. It’s really that easy.” ~ Jill Bolte Taylor

Alex Myles

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