The 90-second rule for emotional regulationOct 17, 2023
Making empowered decisions and avoiding reactive responses starts with feeling your emotions without judgment.
It's natural to get stuck ruminating in painful emotional loops that prolong suffering and limit clear decision-making. Pausing to mindfully observe and experience your feelings allows you to move through them (or them to move through you).
Today’s practice, brought to you by a Harvard brain scientist, will help you navigate through this so you can break the cycle of rumination and consciously choose your reactions.
Let's dive in.
1 thing to apply
Think of emotions as energy in motion. When uncomfortable feelings arise, give yourself 90 seconds to observe and feel them.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard brain scientist and author of Whole Brain Living and My Stroke of Insight. She calls this the “90-second rule,” and I've quoted her throughout this post to best explain it:
“When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
What this means:
When you react to something in your environment (like a stimulus that makes you scared or angry), there's a 90-second process where your brain fires a signal and a stress hormone is released in your body to stimulate a fight, flight, or freeze response.
After 90 seconds, it’s flushed away. Any remaining emotional response is caused by staying in that emotional loop by ruminating on a thought or event and creating ongoing emotional and physiological responses in the brain and body.
3 main benefits
- The 90-second rule increases your awareness so you can allows uncomfortable emotions to move through you.
- This rule acts as a powerful reminder of your ability to choose your response versus reacting on autopilot.
- With ongoing awareness, this practice helps you break the habit of prolonged emotional and mental suffering.
5 minutes or less
Step 1: Name the emotion
When you feel upset, anxious, angry, etc. pause and acknowledge the feeling. You can use the Feelings Wheel created by Dr. Gloria Willcox. (Click on the image below to view it full size in a new tab.)
Step 2: Observe and feel
You might want to close your eyes and pay attention to the physical sensations and emotions arising. For emotions that feel especially intense, Taylor suggests looking at the second hand on a watch:
“As soon as you look at it, you’re now observing yourself having this physiological response instead of engaging with it. It will take less than 90 seconds, and you will feel better.”
Use this to gently remind yourself that the emotion is energy in motion and will soon pass.
Source: Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor on YouTube
Step 3: Check your thoughts
What if you still feel the same after 90 seconds? In My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, Taylor writes,
“After [90 seconds], 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 response over and over again.”
Check in with yourself after the 90 seconds have passed. How do you feel? What are you thinking about? Do these thoughts serve you?
Make a plan to tend to the thoughts that might re-stimulate this emotional loop. Journal, find a quiet space, talk to someone, or do whatever might help you begin to let go of these lingering thoughts.
1. Do your best to approach this practice without judgment.
Try not to ignore or invalidate the emotion or get caught up in stories about why you feel this way (and maybe wish you didn’t).
2. Observe, identify, and interrupt unhelpful thought patterns.
Find ways to pause and notice the thoughts that “activate the circuit.” Close your eyes, take deep breaths, count down from 5, or check your watch.
“There’s probably a thought somewhere in your brain of somebody who did you wrong 20 years ago. Every time you think of that person it still starts that circuit.
When things are getting hot and you’re getting hot-headed, look at your watch. It takes 90 seconds to dissipate that anger response.”
Conclusion: Use the 90-second rule to let feelings flow naturally. This can free you from reactive patterns and reconnect you with your power—and responsibility—to choose the thoughts you focus on. Break the cycle of rumination and choose to consciously respond.
Apply this further:
Empowered decision-making is rooted in inquiry, honesty, and a willingness to feel the uncomfortable emotions. That’s why this rule is part of my decision-making course, which walks you through how to overcome decision paralysis and offers expert practices to help you make decisions with confidence.
Your time and energy are your most precious resources. As always, thank you for sharing some of yours with me today.
Want to dive deeper? Here are 3 ways I can help:
1. For clarity and focus, start with an affordable self-paced course:
- Intentional Productivity: How to Find and Focus on the Right Things
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- Making Big Decisions: 6 Expert Practices for Clarity and Confidence
2. If you're ready to build a full-scale personal productivity system, join our live 5-week program.
3. For a practical approach to self-care and mindfulness, check out my books:
- Everyday Mindfulness: 108 Simple Practices to Empower Yourself and Transform Your Life
- Self Care at Work: How to Reduce Stress, Boost Productivity, and Do More of What Matters