As I settled into my seat for a flight to New York City, the man sitting next to me told me his name was Bart and began chatting amiably. He was charming and poised, but his refined demeanor crumpled when he learned I was a psychologist. “God, I could use your help,” he said as he slumped back in his seat.
Bart was an award-winning partner at a large architecture firm. Though he loved the creative part of being an architect, working with demanding clients was maddening. Sometimes he couldn’t take the aggravation and would suddenly blurt out exactly what he was thinking. He had recently called his top client “a narcissistic blowhard.” Not surprisingly, the man had taken his business elsewhere, as had many other clients.
Bart was a victim of the “amygdala hijack,” a term coined by Dr. Daniel Goldman, a psychologist who studies emotional intelligence. Dr. Goldman created this phrase based on research by Dr. Joseph Ledoux in The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, which explores the powerful influence of a brain region called the amygdala.
The amygdala is a small area, deep in the center of the brain, that plays a huge role in emotional functioning. It’s responsible for your primitive reactions to dangerous stimuli, often referred to as the “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Because these life and death reactions are vital to survival, your brain wires information from the outside world to the amygdala faster than it does to other parts of your brain. This enables the amygdala to instantly take over and bypass the frontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of planning and reasoning. When the amygdala is in charge, you act without thinking. Helpful if a bear is chasing you. Not so helpful at work, and other bear-free zones.
Sometimes our brain can’t tell the difference between a bear, an annoying client, or a tailgating car. This is when the “90-second rule” comes in handy.
90 Second Pause
According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, ninety seconds is all it takes to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate while you simply notice it. When you’re stressed, pausing ninety seconds and labeling what you’re feeling (eg., I’m getting angry), tamps down activity in the amygdala. MRI studies of the brain show that this “emotion labeling” calms the brain region involved in angry outbursts and helps you regain control. Dr. Bolte explains.
“When a person has a reaction to something in their environment,” she says, “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 reaction, over and over again.”
Dr. Taylor’s research suggests that mindfulness – the practice of bringing your attention to your present moment experience without judgment – can help emotions move through you quickly. That’s great news. Unfortunately, changing how you react to your feelings is harder than it sounds.
Let’s explore how to put Dr. Taylor’s research into action by looking at common challenges and roadblocks, and how someone like Bart might deal with them.
Putting it into Practice
There are three steps to allowing an emotion to dissipate in 90 seconds: Identify it, label it, and observe it without trying to change it. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
- Identify an emotional reaction
Emotions usually begin with physical responses. For example, anger may show up as chest tightness, rapid heartbeat, agitation, sweating or feeling hot. Some people initially experience their emotions as thoughts. For example, in meetings, Bart is often full of judgment toward his clients.
Challenge: Bart, like many people, is out of touch with himself. He rarely thinks about his feelings, thoughts or body. If you asked him what he was feeling at any given moment, he wouldn’t know. Likewise, he can’t identify the physical sensations that accompany his anger until it’s too late to stop an outburst.
Solution: Someone like Bart can start by simply paying more attention to himself. To do this, he could set an hourly reminder to take an internal weather report by asking himself, What’s going on in my body? What am I thinking right now? As he checks in, Bart should pay close attention to physical “tells” of his growing anger, such as restlessness or stomach tightness. He might notice mental signs, such as harsh judgments or an intense desire for his clients to leave.
- Label the emotion
This step involves simply naming the emotion, such as I’m feeling angry. Do this as a neutral observer might, without judgment.
Challenge: Bart isn’t skilled in identifying his feelings.
Solution: Having a cheat sheet helps. When I work with clients who don’t know what they’re feeling, I ask them to pick between five options: mad, sad, glad, afraid, or ashamed. This list is easy to memorize. It’s a multiple-choice question and “none of the above” is not an option. (However, you might pick more than one, as you often have multiple feelings at the same time). When Bart notices physical sensations and asks himself “What am I feeling?” he may not know the answer. That’s ok. He can follow up by asking himself, If I had to pick between mad, sad, glad, afraid, and ashamed, what would it be? Although this question may seem reductive, regularly answering it builds self-awareness. This is crucial, as you have to be aware of a feeling in order to observe it moving through you, which is the last step.
- Allow the feeling to come and go without judging or trying to change it
Feelings are like ocean waves — they rise, crest and recede, all day long. Dr. Taylor’s research shows that the entire “wave” process takes 90 seconds if you identify, label, and accept your emotion. This last step involves allowing the feeling to exist without trying to shove it down or deny it, or conversely, magnify it or make it a big deal. Simply observe it.
Challenge: Feeling your emotions can be painful, confusing, and scary, and it’s natural to want to avoid them. Luckily, you can build up your tolerance for emotions much like you can strengthen muscles by going to the gym. When you practice observing and accepting your emotions, you are going to the “emotional gym.” This psychological workout builds better self-awareness which results in fewer amygdala hijacks. (read here for more benefits of feeling emotions)
Challenge: Your emotions overwhelm you, like waves that never recede. This is a common dilemma that can be traced to your thoughts. When you feel stuck in a feeling Dr. Taylor says to “….look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological reaction, over and over again.” Journaling can help you to get your thoughts down on paper and reduce the emotional charge behind them.
Additional roadblocks to developing the 90-second habit:
- Forgetting. You’re busy; you’ve got a full life.
Solution: Like Bart, set a timer to remind yourself throughout your day to breathe and check-in with how you’re feeling. Start your day practicing mindfulness with a quick meditation. Apps such as Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace have meditations as short as one minute.
- Discouragement. Like any new habit, it takes time to learn to notice and label feelings and then to allow them to dissipate. At first, you’ll do it messily.
Solution: Don’t do it alone. Research shows that building new habits is easier when you do it with others. Connect with others who are working on the same thing. Find an accountability buddy who will help you show up to the emotional gym each day. Be patient with yourself by focusing on progress, not perfection.
Taking it further: Want more guidance on how to form or break habits? Check out Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.