90 Seconds

I learned something recently that has radically changed my behavior…

Jill Bolte Taylor, a neurological researcher and brain scientist, shared via her memoirs of a stroke she experienced, that emotions can have a lifespan as short as 90 seconds.

Ninety. Seconds.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

… ninety periods right there…!

The trouble is that we build (or rebuild) the narratives, the stories that surround the emotions in that moment in time and keep them alive as we ruminate about them. And, the longer we think about them and hold them actively in our memory, the longer they persist and our manifest behavior reflects those thoughts and feelings.

Go figure.

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. 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 response over and over again.

That’s kind of crazy, in a way.

So, one thing I’ve been trying to do recently as an exercise, especially when I get upset or anxious, is to use this as a framework to calm down.

I’ll first excuse myself, finding a spot to be alone and preferably quiet and dark (if not, I’ll throw on some headphones and close my eyes) and then I’ll start counting to ninety, once per breath.

Two things normally happen as a result:

  1. I’ll forget about counting altogether and start thinking about something more interesting. That “thing” is not usually the thing that got me upset in the first place! Amazing. I’ll then follow this train of thought out of upset-station and into a much healthier place.
  2. I’ll find that I’ve gone way past the number ninety — I once counted to 330-ish before I realized that I should have stopped a while back! The counting becomes the focus, so much so that I’m lulled into continuing the exercise without really thinking about it. This also reduces my heart rate and blood pressure and by that time my body is sufficiently decompressed to move on.

The biggest problem in this exercise isn’t the exercise itself — it’s actually admitting to myself that I need to do it in the first place! There’s still a lot of pride in my own head (and heart) and I don’t raise the white flag nearly as often as I should; I’m getting better at this and actively practicing this technique is making it a bit easier overtime to execute against it.