90 Second Emotion Rule
Most people haven’t thought about emotions being a chemical response in the body. However, according to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, when we are emotionally triggered, it takes less than 90 seconds for an emotion to get triggered, surge chemically through the blood stream, and then get flushed out. Dr. Taylor, a brain researcher who wrote the book, My Stroke of Insight, suffered a stroke herself at the age of 37 years. She studied her own brain through her experience of having a stroke, her recovery, and the insights she discovered. (Taylor, 2006)
Dr. Bolte learned that the automatic and chemical responses in our body, as an emotion moves through us, even when the emotion is extreme, cannot last longer than 90 seconds. So when something in our environment happens to trigger an emotional response, chemicals are dumped into our system, putting our body on full alert. For our body to release these chemicals and totally flush them out of our system, it takes 90 seconds or less. (Taylor, 2006) Most of us probably have a hard time understanding this because we have experienced life in a different way when our emotions did last longer than 90 seconds.
There are several things to consider with this information. There must be a way to manage emotions without being stuck in the pain of them if they really only last 90 seconds or less. And stuffing emotions probably isn’t the most effective way to deal with our emotions either.
Bolte states that it is up to us if we want to stay in the emotional circuitry through our thoughts. She calls this the 90 Second Emotion Rule. After the emotion has flushed through, we can decide if we want to continue in the circuitry of the emotion. We can reactivate our emotional circuitry with our thoughts.
In DBT we call this “Sticky Thoughts”. These are the thoughts that stick to an event and keep us in rumination mode. So with this 90 second emotion information, we might want to consider using our mindfulness skills to observe the emotions that come up and allow them to release without attaching thoughts to the emotion. Staying attuned to the emotion in the moment would better serve us in being more effective in our day than being on autopilot and cruising through without noticing the thoughts that take us into the emotional circuitry. In our mindfulness, we can observe the thoughts that allow us to “take it” or “leave it”.
This means that if feelings of worry, guilt, shame come rolling in, we can allow them to come in, flush through our system and decide that they do not serve us. Allow the feelings to be done after they have completed the circuitry loop. They are absurd and we don’t have to be caught in thinking thoughts about them to keep them activated. Move on. It is only a feeling.
It may also mean we want to consider if stuffing emotions serves us. If we stuff our emotions, resist expressing them, those chemicals remain in our body and we have to do something to manage them whether it is emotionally eating, drinking, shopping, keeping busy so we can’t sit down, etc. Fighting emotions, resisting them, means we have to continue to “keep a lid on them”. This takes energy. Anyone can tolerate a feeling for 90 seconds. Consider sitting down and letting the feeling come up and roll through you. Ride the wave of the emotion and then let it go. The workbook, Me and My Volcano, is a book we use to teach kids to allow emotions to be expressed rather than holding them in (which may seem safer at the time if they have the experience of releasing and expressing emotions appropriately later. If not, then the stuffing becomes dangerous as the feelings pile up and then erupt – often over something so minute, only to hurt themselves and others. The idea is to give the emotions some voice even if it means some private journaling rather than stuffing it and avoiding it altogether. (Hage, 1999)
Bolte gave us a wonderful challenge and good insight regarding our emotions. They are important. They give us information about ourselves and where we are in the moment. We need to feel our feelings, observe them, release them, and then move on. We don’t have to get caught up in them. We don’t have to be afraid of them. Just let the feelings come, let them go and move on about your day.
Hage, D. (1999). Me and my volcano. Silverthorne: Parenting With Pizazz Publications.
Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of Insight: a brains scientist’s personal journey. New York: Penguin Group.Tags: 90 second emotion rule, emotions last 90 seconds
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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