The man sitting next to me was impeccably dressed and greeted me with a smile as I stowed my suitcase in the overhead bin. He 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 chair.
Bart told me he was an award-winning partner at a large architecture firm. Though he loved the creative part of being an architect, working with clients was maddening. They were demanding and fickle. Sometimes he couldn’t take the aggravation and would blurt out exactly what he was thinking. He had recently told his top client that he was “a narcissistic blowhard.” Nor 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, which 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. Thus, when the amygdala is in charge, you act without thinking. Helpful if a bear is chasing you. Not so helpful in the workplace or when coping with life’s aggravations.
The problem is sometimes our brain can’t tell the difference between a bear and an annoying client or a tailgating car. This is where something called 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 offers a simple, yet powerful mindfulness habit that can change your relationship to your emotions. When you feel out of control, it can help you regain control and gives you the option of responding to your feelings rather than reacting.
Putting it into Practice
Bart, like many people, was out of touch with himself. He was unaccustomed to thinking about his feelings or his body. He couldn’t identify, for example, the physical symptoms that accompanied his anger until it was too late. To him, his outbursts seemed to come out of nowhere. I assured Bart that he experienced early warning signs but hadn’t yet learned to identify them.
To use the ninety-second rule, Bart would need to begin checking in with himself during client meetings, paying attention to physical “tells” of his growing anger, such as restlessness or stomach tightness. He might also notice mental signs, such as harsh judgments or an intense desire for his clients to leave. These observations would be his signal to pause and ask himself, “What am I feeling and why?” This would take practice and time, but the payoff would be better self-control. Not to mention more self-awareness and less emotional backlog.
Still, developing the 90-second habit takes time and involves navigating challenges.
- Forgetting. You’re busy; you’ve got a full life.
Tip: Set a timer that reminds you 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.
- Internalized prohibitions against feelings. These originate from early training in your family, cultural messages, and religious or spiritual beliefs.
Tip: Ask yourself which emotions you most dislike feeling. Do you believe some feelings are wrong or shameful? Journal about how your attitude toward these feelings affects your ability to notice and respond to them. Take it up a notch by talking to a trusted friend or advisor.
- 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.
Tip: Practice self-compassion, and remember to focus on progress, not perfection. Connect with others who are working on the same thing. (read here about the power of groups).
Above all, remember that your emotions are your greatest source of information about how things are going in your life. When you slow down enough to hear the messages they send and to choose your responses, your life improves.
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.