No doubt about it. It’s an uncertain, scary time.
Social distancing has many of us feeling isolated. News stories filled with speculation have us scared and confused. The every-side-is-doing-it blame game fills us with anger and frustration.
We worry about our loved ones. We worry about our bank accounts. We worry about how long this will go on.
All of these emotions – the fear and anger and anxiety – they all make sense, of course. And they’re certainly not isolated to this current time. We felt fear long before COVID-19 hit its first headline.
Fear stars very, very young.
These emotions may not feel good, but they are a fact of life. And if we ever have a hope of getting rid of them, we need to feel them.
Not try to escape them or go around them. But really feel them. The only way out is through, after all.
The good news is that we can get through them. And, for the most part, we can do it relatively quickly.
In under two minutes, in fact. No joke.
I present to you…a handy knowledge nugget known as the 90 Second Rule.
If you’ve ever heard of Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor and her book “My Stroke of Insight”, you might remember this one. If not, allow me to spread the love.
It was actually through experiencing her own stroke that Jill came to the critical scientific fact that the physiological lifespan of an emotion is 90 seconds.
90 seconds. That’s how long it takes the chemicals related to an emotion to flush through your body.
That’s how long the sensations – adrenaline, heat in the face, tightness in the throat, rapid heartbeat – arise, peak and dissipate on their own.
That’s how long an emotion really lasts, if we just leave it alone. Which we usually don’t.
How We Mess Up the Rule
90 seconds. It’s so hard to believe because we rarely just let emotions run their course. Instead, we allow our thoughts to immediately unleash themselves on the scene. And, as I discussed in my last post about our inner novelist, those thoughts aren’t exactly positive.
We build on our fears by hastily imagining fictional, dystopian scenarios. We furiously make ourselves right and blame others for our terrible situations. We envision, with unwarranted certainty, our permanently miserable futures.
We create thought-induced internal tornadoes that turn a 90-second emotion into a saga that lasts hours or days or weeks. Maybe a lifetime.
I’ve heard it said that emotions are body sensations burdened by thoughts. Whenever we shift our focus from our physical sensations to our thoughts (we can’t focus on both at once), the burden gets heavy.
So let’s lighten it up, yes?
How to Stop Messing Things Up
It’s harder than it sounds, but we can get better at this 90 second rule business.
Here are some steps:
- Pay attention: When you start to feel an emotion, pause. Even if it’s for a microsecond. Recognize that you are feeling afraid or angry or dread. Create a space before those thoughts can even begin. Or, if they’ve already started, freeze them in their tracks.
- Focus and Feel: Every emotion brings with it a physical sensation. You may feel it as tension in your neck or tightness in your heart or a queasiness in the stomach (my personal ouchie spot). This physical feeling is the part that lasts 90 seconds. Focus on it. Perhaps put your hand on the place where it hurts and soothe it until it passes.
- Tell those thoughts where to go: It won’t take long for your thoughts to start popping up. They’ll tell you how awful the emotion feels and they’ll stir up visions of how it will get worse and they’ll get really, really mad at whoever might be causing it. Your job is to let those thoughts fade away, no matter how persistent…to keep your focus squarely on the physical feeling. Do it over and over and over again, like a gnarly-thought whack-a-mole.
- Repeat: The 90 second rule doesn’t mean that once you work through an emotion it will never come back. Emotions are a part of life. We’ll be triggered again…especially if we keep on feeding the beast by checking the news and social media every ten minutes (don’t do this, by the way). The good news is this will give us lots of time to practice.
We can only get better from here, right? So let’s work on it. I’m willing to bet we can do anything for 90 seconds.
And then we can get to work feeling other kinds of emotions.
PS: Thanks to my friend Autumn Doermann-Rojas for what just may be the best Santa photo ever…and for the pic of those same adorable girls when they’re not quite so traumatized.