Eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty-nine, ninety… Tucked away in her office on the thirty-ninth floor, Zara, COO of a large tech firm, silently counts in her head as she observes her two work colleagues arguing. Their raised voices, accusatory comments, and furious hand gestures illustrate the frustration and anger at a project’s delay. She notes that her own emotional response would have been similar if she hadn’t discovered the 90-second rule.
Everyone has emotions. It’s a natural part of being human. Each day our emotions shift and change as we navigate work and life. But did you know there’s a simple 90-second rule which allows you control over your emotions?
The 90-second chemical reaction of emotions
The theory of constructed emotion explains how emotions happen and are built up. We humans construct our emotions based on two things: our physiological experience of a situation and our personal interpretation of it. This also gives us the power to manage and control our emotions. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Harvard brain scientist explains:
“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 (1)”
Our emotional triggers or red flags activate chemical changes within our body which puts us on full alert: the fight, flight, or freeze response. For these chemicals to be totally flushed out of our body takes less than 90 seconds.
This 90 second window means you can recognise your red flags, feel the physiological changes in your body, and observe as chemicals build or fade. After 90 seconds, the initial chemical reaction is over. If you still feel fear, anger, anxiety, or any other emotion, it’s not your physiology that’s fuelling it – it’s your own thoughts re-stimulating the chemical changes. These thoughts construct a feedback loop which re-activate the chemical response and embed the emotion deeper. So you could say that our uniquely human ability to think makes it possible for us to get stuck in the emotional loop. This 90 second window places responsibility for emotional self-awareness and regulation on us and aligns with the theory of constructed emotion(2).
4 strategies to work with the 90-second window
Back to Zara, the COO who previously believed it was her colleagues who, “Make me feel angry and frustrated. It’s all their fault”.
The knowledge that she could know her triggers, refine her self-awareness, and regulate her emotional response, motivated her to take ownership of her emotions. She described, “I don’t want to give away my emotions and let someone else control me. I want to feel emotions which support my work where I feel empowered, determined and alert. Not angry and frustrated.”
So how can you improve your emotional self-awareness and construct your own emotions? These 4 strategies can help you work with the 90 second window.
1. Get to know your red flags
Explore what triggers you before the 90 second window even starts. Understand who, what, when, or where you experience a certain negative emotional response: whether it’s a colleague or a client, a specific time of day, a particular office layout, or even a song. Recent triggers from a workshop on emotions included: “micro-management”, “others not finishing a task”, “patronising behaviour”, “small spaces”, or “not putting dirty dishes into the dishwasher”.
Take ownership of your triggers. Be mindful of them as you move through your day.
2. Identify an emotional reaction
Every emotion has a physiological “signature” as the body activates the cardiovascular, skeletomuscular, neuroendocrine, and autonomic nervous system(3). Pause to notice and recognise these bodily reactions. For example, anger can be experienced as a clenched jaw, tight muscles, an increased or rapid heartbeat, whereas happiness is often described as an inner lightness, relaxed muscles, and regular breaths.
Tune into your body on a regular basis. When overcome by an emotion, ask yourself: ‘What do I feel in my body?’ or ‘What do I notice?’. Be curious about your responses.
3. Label the emotion
What we can name, we can work with. Identity the emotion in a word. Work to increase your emotional vocabulary – instead of being just “pissed off”, perhaps you are annoyed, frustrated, impatient, or furious?
Start with base emotions described by psychologist Paul Eckman; happy, sad, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger and seek to develop into more nuanced distinctions, such as the Feelings Inventory by the Center for Non-violent Communication (4).
Emotional control doesn’t mean we should absolutely control or repress our feelings. They’re part of healthy adaptation and an emotionally rich life. So, allow feelings to come and go without judging or trying to change them. Be a curious observer within yourself. Manage and control when you feel the emotions should not get the upper hand of you. These 4 strategies help optimise the 90 second micro-moment as emotions build and take hold. Zara’s experience offers a glimmer of hope to anyone struggling to with their habitual emotional responses. She says, “In those moments I was anger. I didn’t believe it would be possible to be anything else. Now I know I can let the anger come, but then channel the high energy into something more constructive”. What emotion do you want to be or do you want to master? Take these 4 strategies and start your journey to mastery.
- Taylor, J. B. (2009) My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. Yellow Kite.
- Feldman-Barrett, L. (2017) How emotions are made – The secret life of the brain. Pan MacMillan
- Nummenmaa L., Glerean E., & Hietanen J. K. (2013). Bodily maps of emotions in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences.
Anna-Marie is a former officer in the British Army, where she was deployed on three operational tours. She’s a highly experienced coach, and has helped set up chapters for the International Coach Federation in e.g. Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Outside of her coaching work she’s something of an action junkie: she’s worked in challenging environments from the snowy Arctic to hot deserts, and competes in ultra-running races all over the world. Anna-Marie has a Masters in Teaching from the University of Sydney.
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