90 Seconds Grace

We now know that to feel better, we must first feel. Feel whatever emotion you need to for 90 seconds.

Jill Bolte Taylor


Let feelings blow through without fighting or judgement. Don't stuff them down. Feelings are part of beng human. Just let them pass, wait and then decide how to react.

The amygdala, part of the brain's limbic system, reacts very fast to what it perceives as danger. It hijacks the brain, bypassing the reasoning cortex, producing the chemicals of emotion and causing a physiological reaction, like anger. But according to Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist, the chemical component of the emotion dissipates in just over a minute. She calls it the 90-second rule.

Who would have thought my mother's advice “count up to ten” would have a physiological basis. If we wait 90 seconds, the chemicals fuelling our emotions have left our blood stream. Our knee jerk response is over. We can engage our rational cortex and make a measured response. As she says, anything we feel after the 90 seconds is our choice.

What I like about this is that I don't have to blame myself for the initial anger or what have you. It is my amygdala's attempt to protect me. I am only responsible if I fan the flames or put it on a slow burner – if I choose to let fly or hold a grudge. This stops my going round in circles in futile self-talk. As the chemicals dissipate, I can take a breath and go into the NOW – that calm where my deeper self dwells. Then I can decide.

When my mother died, my emotions were a turmoil, swinging from grief to anger, acceptance and even laughter. The only way to cope, I found, was to shift my emotional gears into neutral. Then when the worst was over, I re-engaged. But, most important, I didn't judge my erratic emotions, just waited for them to pass,

The 90 second rule works the same way. Jill Bolte Taylor describes it as, “totally empowering. That means for 90 seconds, I can watch this happen, I can feel this happen and I can watch it go away. After that, if I continue to feel that fear or feel that anger, I need to look at the thoughts I am thinking that are re-stimulating that circuitry that is resulting in me having this physiology over and over again.”

So not only do I not need to listen to monkey mind, I don't have to be swayed by the amygdala's histrionics. I don't have to react to a flash of anger or a twist in my heart, nor do I have to judge, argue or put down. This knee jerk is a manifestation of my protective amygdala, which is en guard like our cat, alert and suspicious.

I need only start the deprecating self-talk if I maintain the feelings by feeding them – with bad memories, a list of slights, self-pity. It works like another trick: putting off the point of panic. When you have a crisis, don't go into full alarm. Acknowledge it could be serious, you can't fool the reptile brain, and then decide when you will panic. For example, when the medical test is positive, or when i have looked for the car keys in (a), (b) or (c).

The 90 second rule buys time the same way. I don't need to let my flash of anger, defence or hurt engage my heart. It is no more than a flash of adrenaline – unless I decide to nurture it. And that space gives me the chance to look coolly at the facts – and often not react at all.

More info:

TED Talk by Jill Bolte Taylor

My Stroke of Insight: a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor.

Monkey Mind


About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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