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The 90-second Rule to Control Your Emotions

chris rock communication will smith
A woman holds her head in her hands while trying to control her emotions

By John Millen

Have you ever made an impulsive decision then said or done something you later deeply regretted?

We all have, but not as publicly as Will Smith. 

When he slapped Chris Rock at the Academy Awards, it was literally the slap heard around the world –– with billions of people watching.

From his recent apology video, it’s clear he didn’t think about the far-reaching consequences at the time of his impulsive emotional reaction.

Will Smith could have benefited from  learning the 90-second rule.



Controlling emotions

Today I’m breaking down this powerful brain rule. I’ll give you the three steps you can take to help you control your emotions next time you’re feeling angry, fearful, insulted, jealous or any other strong emotional response.

When you were upset as a child you probably heard the advice to count to ten before you act –– one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three… 

And that was close to the 90-second rule but not quite.

The 90-second rule says that when an event happens and you feel that surge of adrenaline it only takes 90 seconds for your body to process and release those hormones.

This rule comes from Dr. Jill Taylor, a neurologist who studies brain and body function. 

At 37 years old she had a massive stroke. She lost language, movement and her relationship with reality. She eventually healed herself and used her observations to inform her work as a brain scientist. She gave this awesome TED Talk about it in 2008.

Dr. Taylor explains that when a stressful event occurs and we have an emotional reaction, a rush of hormones go through our brains and bodies.

They’re designed to give us the ability to escape danger. In modern life, there may not be a real danger but we still get stressed and those hormones race through our bodies. 

Road rage is an incredibly powerful example of people allowing their emotions to get the best of them. They let themselves go crazy, including shooting other people.

This is sad because Dr. Taylor says it only takes 90 seconds for your body to process and release these stress hormones.

What happens after that, she says, is that we get our brains caught in a loop, locked into a cycle. And that’s all caused by our thoughts. By controlling your thoughts you can break the cycle.

So given that, next time you have a major event or even a smaller event, like frustration with traffic, that triggers you, use the 90-second rule.

I discovered this rule during the start of Covid in early 2020. It’s been extremely helpful. 

Here are three steps I follow that will help you control your emotional response to events. These are my words, based on Dr. Taylor’s research. 

1. Feel the rush 

When something happens that provokes you I recommend you just stop and feel the chemical reaction in your body. Unless you’re facing a real threat, don’t instantly react or take any physical action. 

Instead of focusing on the emotions you feel, just sit and feel the sensations in your body. The adrenaline running through you. 

2. Wait for the release

After 90 seconds, you’ll feel the hormones subside. If you stay focused, you can actually feel them releasing in your body. Just sit and wait for the tide to turn.

Then I recommend you focus your breath. Your heart rate will be racing and your breathing will be shallow. Take a few slow, deep breaths. 

Try it now. Take a deep breath.

Do you feel how that calms you? This is the best way to calm your body, your brain and your nervous system. 

3. Break the cycle

When you’ve settled your body and brain, you can patiently decide what comes next. At this point, with your mind starting to calm, you can make a more rational choice. 

Then think about it: Here’s how I’m feeling right now, here’s the emotional response I wanted to give. 

Is this response necessary? Will it achieve the best outcome?

It may feel good to yell at someone or say something nasty or sarcastic but will it help or hurt your relationship in the long-term?

This is how you break the cycle. 

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.

Trapped in an emotional loop

After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at your  thoughts. They are re-stimulating your brain’s circuitry. Dr. Taylor says that results in you having this physiological response over and over again. Being trapped in an emotional loop.

This is a valuable insight. If our bodies are capable of processing the emotional reaction in 90 seconds, we are the ones who continue to ruminate on the event, instead of processing it to resolution or letting it go.

This is the key: none of us has control over the events we face. The only thing we can control is our response to those events.

The person who said this best is Viktor Frankl. He survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps and learned the power of controlling one’s response. He said: 

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

When you face a stressful event this week, instead of reacting emotionally try to be an observer of your body for 90 seconds –– feel the emotions, the hormonal rush. Then experience your body processing these chemicals to relief.

At that point, your body has done its job. The next move is up to you. How you respond to emotional situations can make or break your relationships. 

Don’t have regrets like Will Smith.

In contrast, I commend Chris Rock. I suspect he knows the 90-second rule because he implemented it in three seconds, when he decided not to retaliate but to be a consummate professional and move on. 

By using the 90-second rule you give yourself power over your emotions. This rule can change your life and the lives of people all around you.

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John Millen

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