Do you know how long an emotion lives in your body? According to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a leading neuroscientist, it takes an emotion 90 seconds from the time it was triggered to subside. In reality, this is usually not how things play out. Emotions can be triggered by any of the challenges we face daily – some as small as picking up dishes left behind by a partner or child, others as large as navigating a viral pandemic. In the heat of the moment, these triggers and their resulting emotions take over our brains, our behaviors, and our lives. Very often, they seem to last more than 90 seconds, maybe days, months, or even years.

In this post, we’ll explore how our emotions function using the ABC’s model of the mind and how we can hit the reset button on our minds by applying the 90-second rule to transform our emotions.

The 90 Second Rule

The 90-second rule can be attributed to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her best-selling book, My Stroke of Insight. Emotions are not only felt in our minds, but are also physiological responses to various stimuli, which can be internal (e.g. a thought or memory) or external (e.g. a phone ringing or a viral pandemic occurring). This is why when we are angry, for example, we feel our head throbbing, our heart rate going up, and our face heating up. Dr. Taylor explains in her book that when we simply observe the physiological sensations in the body without reacting, the emotion dissipates within 90 seconds. If we continue to feel it after 90 seconds, which generally seems to be the case, it’s because we’re choosing to ruminate and stay hooked to the thoughts. She describes it in the following way:

“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.”

There will be times where events will trigger stronger, longer lasting emotions such as sadness and grief, and that is normal. This 90-second rule, however, provides a useful way of looking at our experiences in many everyday situations. When we’re triggered, reminding ourselves to look at the physical nature of the emotion and how it plays out in our bodies can help us overcome the initial impulse to react. Once the intensity of the emotion passes, we can explore our experience and choose our response.

Let’s look at the 90-second rule within the context of the ABC’s of the Mind framework that I described in my last blog post.

ABCs of the Mind: A Recap

A: It all starts with activating events, which are largely out of our control – anything can happen at any time. These events can be internal or external.

B: The event then triggers our beliefs. These are also largely out of our control, as they’ve been shaped by our past experiences and they automatically come to mind in response to the event. These beliefs start a chain reaction of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, which are all part of the 90-second automatic reactions. No matter how long you’ve been meditating, you’re going to feel different emotions triggered by different events in your life.

C: This is where choice comes in. Once we notice our automatic reactions at level B, we can choose how we want to proceed. Our default reactions include pushing (resisting what’s uncomfortable), pulling (clinging to what’s comfortable), and running in circles (rushing and being stuck in a loop). Or we can choose to be mindful by bringing awareness with other qualities of the mind that allow us to be open, kind, and balanced.

After the initial rush of chemicals induced by our emotions, we can choose to ruminate and stay stuck in our cycle of reactivity, or we can step out of that reactive loop to examine our experience. This allows us to understand the information our emotions are providing us. These emotions can inform us about our unmet needs or mental habits that don’t serve us. This clear seeing can help us disrupt the loop of reactivity and make intentional choices. This is what I call the RESET process.

The RESET Process

This process can help us calm down, explore our experiences, and find the most skillful means of responding to the situation at hand.

Relax your mind and body: Take at least 90 seconds to relax your mind and body. Meditation or a simple awareness of breath is a good option, but you can also relax your mind and body by exercising, dancing, or being in nature. Any activity that allows you to rest your thinking mind and engage your senses is calming to the limbic system (your emotional brain) and helps you prepare the mind to be receptive to new ways of thinking and seeing.

Explore your experience: Many people who practice mindfulness end their meditation and move on to their next activity. Meditation creates the right conditions in the mind and body to explore our experience further, which leads to new insights about our default patterns. In this next step, after the 90 seconds of emotions have subsided, we can look at our thoughts and patterns, our body sensations, and feelings. We do this step with kindness and non-judgmental curiosity.

See the big picture: Here, we step back to see the big picture—when we look at our thoughts, what are we noticing about our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and others in this situation, our intentions, and others’ perspectives? In this step, we widen our lens of awareness to gather more information beyond our immediate reactions. Having an understanding of others’ perspectives and our intentions and and beliefs allows us to see patterns of behaviors and consider new possibilities.

Expand possibilities: Once we see our default patterns and align with our intentions, we can expand the possibilities available to us. Rather than going with the first outcome or solution that we already thought of, we stay open to possibilities in this step. This can open up new ways of seeing the problem and novel approaches to engaging in the challenging situation.

Take actions in alignment with your intentions: It’s not enough to have insights into our defaults and to discover solutions—we must act on them. In this last and very important step, we need to break down the solution into concrete steps that we’re going to take that are aligned with our intentions and, if possible, beneficial to all involved.

The RESET process can help us engage with our experience in a kind and creative way after the initial 90 seconds of reactivity.

Resources and Suggestions to Use the RESET Process

RESET Meditation for Clarity: When you feel stuck or face a difficult situation, check out the free RESET For Clarity meditation on my website. It will walk you through each step of the process and help you find a solution that works for you.

RESET On-The-Go: The RESET process can also be used on the go. You don’t have to do the entire meditation and can instead choose any of the steps, in any order that you find helpful. Here are a few ways to play with RESET:

  • Start your morning with a RESET—instead of looking at your phone, take a few deep breaths, check in with your mind and body, and maybe set an intention for your day.
  • RESET before a meeting—take a few breaths to relax your mind and body, check in with your intentions for the meeting, and walk into the meeting with good intentions for all involved.
  • Waiting in line—especially when shopping during COVID-19 period, take a few breaths to check in with how you’re feeling, notice any anxiety, calm down using your breath, release any tension that you’re holding in the body, and be aware of what’s happening around you.

Free Friday Mindfulness Sessions: Join me on Fridays at noon for free mindfulness sessions to cope with Covid-19. These sessions are being offered in partnership with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement District, and The Mill District. No sign up necessary!

Below is the video from last Friday’s session. The practice begins at around 16:00 minutes into the video.

You can access the other meditations and insights from my free weekly mindfulness sessions for coping with the pandemic here.

 Have fun with the RESET process and share your insights and questions in the comments below!