Being human means that we’re attracted to what feels good, and resistant to what doesn’t. That’s the ground of our humanness, and a primary cause of our fear and suffering.
Aware of it or not, we bounce between those two states all day, every day, throughout our lives. Always with the intention of getting back to feelings of happiness and contentment.
Which of course is futile. Talk about anxiety producing!
There is a way out.
We can develop a different relationship with our emotional life. And it begins with the awareness that our emotions are manageable once we understand how they operate.
Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist who, after recovering from a massive stroke, wrote a best-seller entitled: My Stroke of Insight. In it, she explains how emotions work.
All emotions — anger, sadness, joy, longing — are responses to a stimuli. They are automatic. Something happens. Something is said, or done, or thought, that triggers an emotional response in us.
Sometimes we can’t figure out the cause. Usually that means we had a thought or saw something or felt a sensation so fleeting we didn’t even notice it.
Taylor says the length of an emotion, if left to simply live its natural organic life, is one and one-half minutes, just 90 seconds!
When it lasts longer than that, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve rekindled it, over and over, with our thoughts about it. "Oh no, here it is again!" "What if this??" "What if that?" "I hate this!" "Why me??"
Instead of allowing ourselves to feel the discomfort and letting it take its natural 90 second course, we jack it up by recycling our thoughts around it over and over.
In our misguided attempt to get rid of of it, we extend and intensify it. So an emotion that naturally lasts 90 seconds can be dragged out, sometimes for years!
I’ve been struggling with some persistent and annoying hives. They come unexpectedly, seemingly without rhyme or reason or discernible cause. One morning I woke up at 4 am with a large hive on my tongue! Totally freaked me out! Adrenaline rushed through my body and my thoughts went crazy. What if this? What if that?
And then I remembered the 90 second rule. I knew that making friends with the emotion I was feeling wouldn’t necessarily make the hive disappear, but it could help me reduce the intensity of my emotional reaction so that I could come up with a plan instead of running from mirror to mirror hoping that I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing, and further scaring the crap out of myself!
So I sat down, softened my body, focused on my out breath, letting all the air out of my lungs, and immediately realized I needed to take a Benadryl. I also remembered that I have an Epi-pen, which in my fear, I had forgotten. So I breathed into the tightness in my body, softening over and over. And then I took a Benadryl.
I went about my business and noticed that periodically the fear returned. Each time I breathed all the way out and softened around it, it seemed to have its life and leave. The hive got smaller, so I didn’t need the Epi-pen.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that if my throat had been swollen shut this ‘take a pause and rely on the 90 second rule’ approach would have made sense. The story line in that situation would have been different. I haven’t experienced the kind of life-threatening allergic reaction that some people deal with on a regular basis.
With a little bit of hindsight I can see that each time fear returned, as I continued to soften when it showed up, instead of resisting it, it seemed to wreak less havoc on my body. I had the sense that fewer stress hormones were being released the softer and more relaxed I kept my body.
That can only be good news. The fewer stress hormones we’re dumping on ourselves the better!!
So the next time you’re confronted with something that makes you feel unsettled, like the ground beneath your feet isn’t as solid as you’d like it to be, consider doing the 90 second thing:
Soften, lean in, drop the story line, breathe all the way out, and put your attention on relaxing around the physical sensations with openness and compassion for yourself and for the feelings. See what, if anything, you discover.
P.S. The 90 second rule also works with anger. When you notice you’re ready to rip someone’s face off, give yourself 90 seconds. You won’t regret it.