How Long Does an Emotional Reaction Last If We Don’t Fuel It?

how long does an emotional reaction last

How long does an emotional reaction last?

Have you heard of the 90 second rule?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard brain neuroanatomist, author and popular Ted Talk speaker has increased awareness of the 90 second rule.

According to Dr. Bolte Taylor:

Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.

How Can An Emotion Last for Only 90 Seconds or Less?

Our emotions are triggered and fuelled by the story in our minds.

For example, we may think that a driver made us mad, when in actual fact it’s our thoughts about the driver that makes us mad.

If I’m waiting in a long line-up to go over Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge, when suddenly a car comes through the no- traffic-bus-only lane and tries to cut in front me, my thoughts can take two different paths:

Path A thoughts: Who is this driver and why aren’t they following the rules?  How dare they take the bus lane and try to cut in front of me!

My feelings:  Angry

My actions:  Honk my horn and get all fired up and angry

Path B thoughts: I see this driver has taken the bus-only lane.  I wonder if they’re visiting from out of town and don’t realize…  or perhaps they’re about to miss their plane and they’re trying to get to the airport…. or perhaps it’s an emergency and they’re trying to get to Children’s Hospital….

My feelings:  Understanding, Calm, Compassionate

My actions:  I stay calm and waive to the driver to go ahead of me

Do you see how in both scenarios, the event that takes place is the same and I’m the same driver waiting in a long line of traffic but my thoughts change, which leads to my feelings changing and my actions changing.

This is so powerful!  At your next family dinner, ask “How long does an emotional reaction last?” and see if anyone can come close to saying 90 seconds and then discuss strategies for not fuelling one’s thoughts.

Strategies to Ensure My Emotions Don’t Get Fuelled by My Thoughts

If I remind myself about Dr. Bolte Taylor’s scientific information, that an emotion can only last 90 seconds as long as I don’t feed it with my thoughts, then I can use my powers of observation and deep breathing to stay grounded throughout the 90 seconds of intense emotion.

By OBSERVING not judging, I can NAME my thoughts and feelings and let them go….

For example:  I notice a driver in the bus-only lane.  I see the driver is moving in front of me.  I see that this is causing me frustration.  I can feel tension in my body.  I am taking big, deep breaths.  I am naming my thoughts and feelings and putting them in bubbles so they can float away….frustration, anger, breaking rules etc.

Now let’s see how we can apply this with our kids when they’re having a melt-down…

First, we notice that we are triggered.

Second, we remind ourselves that we can breathe our way through this for 90 seconds.

Third, while taking deep breaths, we observe…

  • My child is having a meltdown
  • My child is really really upset
  • My child’s amygdala (alarm centre of the brain which acts on instinct and emotion to fight/flight/freeze) has taken over
  • I feel tense, I feel uncomfortable
  • I remind myself that I’m glad my child can express his/her emotions with me versus stuffing them all inside
  • I’m thankful that my teen is externalizing his/her feelings versus self-medicating, self-harming or using other maladaptive ways of coping

**We may need to walk away in these first 90 seconds to give ourselves the space to let our thoughts flush out.

It’s important that our children understand how we self-regulate in order that they can learn to self-regulate too.

When our children are upset or can feel themselves getting really angry, they too may need to walk away or go to their room to calm down.

Do You Allow Your Child to Walk Away From You When He/She Is Angry?

I’ve talked to many parents who at the beginning of our discussion, feel it is disrespectful and rude if their children walk away from when they’re in the middle of a heated discussion.

In previous generations, it was usually considered rude for a child to walk away but now that we understand brain science we may see “walking away” from a different perspective.

I definitely believe that discussions need to come to completion at some point, but if one or more of the people involved is getting triggered, then this is sign that the conversation is deteriorating and harmful words could follow.

At this point, wouldn’t it be better for all parties to take a break and calm down with the understanding that the conversation will continue later? Wouldn’t this be more productive in the long run?

This maybe a worthwhile conversation to discuss as a family so that everyone can share their perspectives and come up with a plan as to what to do when conversations start turning into arguments and how to stop before emotional damage takes place.

As summer winds down and back-to-school anticipatory anxiety rises, emotions are more likely to be volatile.  I hope this 90 second rule will help you to stay grounded as you ride out the emotion.


how long does an emotional reaction last

PS. Registration is now open for my next round of “Brain Science” groups to teach children ages 7-9 years and 10-12 years about anxiety and anxiety management strategies.  For more information and to register online please click here and go to “upcoming events/groups”.

PPS.  To receive my free ebook:  8 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Your Child Is Anxious, please click here.

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