The theme for this month’s practice series is.
We’ve all been there before: Your mom (or dad, or partner, or child) says something that upsets you, and suddenly your defenses are up and emotion floods your body. Or someone cuts you off in traffic, and your good mood tanks as aggression takes over.
We often spend a lot of time and energy automatically reacting to things that trigger us—whether that’s external circumstances or internal thoughts—even when it doesn’t serve us.
One tool that’s helped me in these moments comes from Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight.” While rebuilding her left-brain functioning after a stroke in 1996, the brain scientist learned valuable lessons from her newly emphasized right brain, including greater freedom in how to choose her reactions to thoughts and emotions.
Taylor explains that when certain limbic system programs (related to emotions) are triggered automatically, there’s a 90-second physiological response that occurs. “It takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our bloodstream,” she writes. “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. Moment by moment, I make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the present moment, allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology.”
Much of the time, though, we don’t make a conscious choice—we follow our habitual patterns and thoughts. So slowing down and cultivating awareness can offer great freedom, either to let go of the fleeting emotion or respond mindfully. As you move into holiday busy-ness, family interactions, or whatever this week holds for you, here’s an in-the-moment exercise to try next time emotions flare up.
- When something triggers you, don’t respond immediately. Instead, slow down and breathe.
- Notice the physiological response in your body. What’s happening? How does it feel? Be with it and breathe into it for 90 seconds without judging it or trying to fix it.
- After 90 seconds, find a way to symbolically release the automatic response—e.g., saying “thank you” and sending it out with an exhale.
- Now you have a choice: Let go of that emotion and move on with your day or choose to respond mindfully rather than react impulsively.
Please note: This doesn’t mean emotions are wrong and should all be released after 90 seconds. It’s an opportunity to make a conscious choice rather than being ruled by automatic emotional responses.
Photo by Bibbie Friman