The 90 Second Rule: Learn to Master Your Emotional Circuitry

When was the last time you were really upset at work? Go ahead – take yourself back to the last time you were upset.

How long did it last?

10 seconds?

10 minutes?

10 days?

There was one instance at a former employer’s where I was furious. I had worked (alone) for weeks on a project, pouring my heart into it and even forgoing time I would have loved to spend with my family. Instead I worked diligently on the presentation, to introduce my idea and how I believed we could implement it to save time and money for my employer.

The day of the meeting, the CEO made a surprise visit and joined us for the presentation of my idea. After the presentation, my boss thanked me for presenting “our” idea and turned to his boss and said, “We can talk more about how this will work for us over lunch.”

… I was not invited to the lunch.

…I was also not given credit for the idea – only the presentation.

Suffice it to say that I was mad for longer than 10 seconds. Almost uncontrollably angry.  In fact, I still get angry even writing about it now.

I have to take a couple deep breaths and remember it was a long time ago.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that biologically, you can only stay upset for 90 seconds.

Wait… What? No really, it’s true. Your body’s stress response only lasts 90 seconds.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a prominent brain scientist published this ground-breaking knowledge in her book, “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.”

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She discovered that the time it takes for your body to recognize a stress, release cortisol, and then flush it from your system is only 90 seconds. After 90 seconds, you either start the cycle again, or stop it.

That’s right. You have the power to stop that runaway train of emotion. Think of how useful this skill would be in negotiation, leadership, relationships, even in the way you talk to yourself.

In this article we are going to explore the cortisol response, what triggers it, and how to reset your biology to better manage acute stress.

The Cortisol Response  

Your body has created a defense mechanism against stress. This response system is highly valuable in times of acute high stress and was developed in the early days of man.

Imagine your ancestor many, many hundreds of years ago. He or she would have been put into dangerous situations where speed and endurance was necessary for survival. Think being chased by a hungry lion, or attacked by a wolf. The human species was designed for survival.

This was incredibly useful to your ancestor who was fighting off a wooly mammoth on a very rare occasion. But while we have evolved a great deal from the Stone Age, our brains have not.

Our brains are impulsive and reactionary. Our primitive brains are living in a modern world, with modern problems. Our bodies react as if we are constantly being chased by an angry Saber tooth tiger rather than irritated at the jerk who pulled out in front of us in traffic.

Your body doesn’t know the difference.

The Science Behind the Scenes

When you are faced with a threat – whether it is real or perceived – your hypothalamus begins the process of enabling your systems to operate under a heightened state of arousal (1). The hypothalamus is a small region at your brain’s base which activates the combination of nerve and hormonal signals which prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of adrenaline and cortisol.

We’re all familiar with adrenaline – which is responsible for increasing your blood pressure and heart rate and boosting your energy supply. Adrenaline’s counterpart, cortisol, is the primary stress hormone and increases glucose in the blood stream while enhancing your brain’s use of glucose (1).

This creates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (2). The loop between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland is responsible for the flight-or-fight response. The system works like this:

When cortisol is low, the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone, which causes the pituitary gland to secrete another hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, into the bloodstream. Higher levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone are detected by the adrenal glands, which then secrete more cortisol. This increase in cortisol in the blood stream starts to block the release of corticotrophin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus and adrenocorticotropic hormone from the pituitary, resulting in the adrenocorticotropic hormone levels beginning to drop, leading to a drop in cortisol levels (2).  As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.


Cortisol also cuts back on body functions that would be non-essential in a flight or fight situation such as immune responses, the digestive system and the reproductive system. Cortisol can also communicate with the brain regions that control mood, motivation, and fear.

This all makes sense now… right?

You get into some situation that makes your “temper” flare and your mood plummets while your heart races. It’s your body trying to equip you for whatever danger it feels you are facing.

The key is to recognize what is happening and limit your response to 90 seconds.

Recognize the Response

The hallmarks of the cortisol response are predictable. A racing heart, rise in blood pressure, flushed skin, and anger. That prickly sensation that climbs up the back of your neck and makes you clench your hands and lock your jaw.

It is vital to limiting the response to be able to recognize it when it starts, and learn how to deflect it. It’s a learned ability to recognize the physical manifestation of the hormonal response.

Beat the Cycle

This entire stress response system only lasts 90 seconds. Once the threat has passed, your heart rate and blood pressure lower back to normal levels and your other systems resume normal operations.

Immediately after a turbulent emotion arises is not the time to react. Your body is keyed up for a fight, your rational mind has been quieted and you are not thinking logically.

Just like you cannot see your reflection in boiling water, similarly you cannot see truth in a state of anger.

And just like if you turn the heat off under the pot of boiling water, it will stop boiling.

Leadership Lesson

When I was hiring my first employee, I asked my business mentor for advice on how to be the best manager I could.

He said, “Practice the pause, and then ask for their reason.”

It was some of the best advice I have ever received.

There was one occasion when my staff had failed to meet a deadline for an important client. I was angry. I looked around at my staff, their shoulders slumped down, their posture telling me they already knew they had messed up.

I took a deep breath, paused and said, “Ok, let’s open their file and see what went wrong.”

All around me came the sound of breath that had been held releasing. Tension that was knotting shoulders was smoothed.

I was the leader who was in charge of setting the tone so I paused and tried to understand the issue without engaging my flight or fight reflex. The result was we became a team again.

It took us a couple of hours to unravel the source of the problem – but before we left that day, we all knew what had happened and how to prevent it in the future.

I still had to fix the issue with the client, but I had a team who was willing to work to earn the customer’s continued business. They were also fiercely loyal to me, and the business.

What if I had reacted from a place of heightened arousal, with my body and mind thinking I was preparing to battle a wooly mammoth with only a wooden club – instead of taking that 90 seconds to pause… and listen.

We would have had an entirely different result.

Tony Robbins talks about this style of approaching conflict in this video..

{{https://www.inc.com/video/tony-robbins-uses-this-90-second-rule-to-train-his-brain-for-success.html   }}


Emotional Reactions

Remember – the lifespan of the chemical response in our brains is 90 seconds. Most of us battle our emotions as they are likely an inconvenient visitor. But rather than reacting to the emotion, what if we just allowed ourselves to move past the first 90 seconds before outwardly reacting?

Jill Bolte Taylor said in her book, My Stroke of Insight “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”

Meaning that our bodies will react with their pre-programmed hormonal response and emotion before logic is even capable of beginning to react.

The way we act to stressful situations varies greatly. Do you know one of those people who seems to never get ruffled, no matter what happens? Their laid-back approach comes through despite unexpected stress.

A short deadline? No problem – they can handle it.

Stuck in traffic? They needed a break from the office anyway.

The refrigerator shut off? Not a big deal, it needed to be cleaned anyway.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is someone who overreacts to every little stressor.

A short deadline? They’re already overworked, there’s no way they’ll make it.

Stuck in traffic? Again? It’s going to make me late for that meeting. I should have taken the train.

The refrigerator shut off? What a waste! I’m going to have to throw all that food out. It’s probably melted all over and ruined my floor too!

There are a few reasons that people react to stress differently, but the good news is you can learn (or unlearn) how you react.

Genetics can play a part in how we react to stress. An overactive or underactive hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis can create disproportionate reactions to stressors.

Life experience also affects the way that you react to stress. Strong reactions can be traced to traumatic events. Those who were neglected or abused as children, or those who have experienced traumatic events can be more vulnerable to stress.


Using the 90 Second Rule

Start by allowing and experiencing the feeling. Don’t push it down, try to ignore it, or refuse to feel it. Acknowledge the feeling, acknowledge that you are entitled to feel it and then shift your thinking.

You have to make an immediate decision to focus your attention elsewhere. You have the power to direct your attention where you think it should be. There’s a great quote from James Redfield, “Where attention goes, energy flows.” Your conscious decision to direct your attention to another area will cause the energy of your mind to flow to that location as well.

It’s important to give your brain another direction to focus on. There are many ways to do this, you can:

  • Do repetitive tasks
  • Find something that will engage your creative thinking abilities
  • Engage in something physical

Repetitive Tasks

Repetitive tasks are useful to balance the mind and body. As you repeat the action, the mind focuses on that action and releases the hold on the factors that are upsetting – allowing the cortisol response to run its course.

“Repetitive behavior and rituals can be very effective in increasing focus and reducing stress,”notes Dr. Jill Owen, a chartered psychologist with The British Psychological Society. (3)

If you find your mind racing, a repetitive task may be most helpful to reset your mind. Something like counting objects (books, floor tile, window panes etc.) or listing groups of things such as names of your family members, all of the pets you have owned, or the address of every house you have lived in.

Tap Into Your Creative Mind

You’ve heard of flow – that state where you are completely engrossed into a task and it just pours out of you. It has been proven that crafting or other creative tasks helps your mind to enter into a flow state more quickly and reliably (4). This too can be applied to stopping the cortisol response. Harnessing the power of a flow state will effectively stop the cortisol response in its tracks and redirect your mind into a flow state.

A task that uses the creative right side of your brain will help to calm your biological response (4). The popularity of adult coloring books speaks to the validity of this approach. Composing a story in your mind, singing along with music, or drawing a quick sketch can be helpful. You can also keep some putty or clay in your desk and sculpt or squish it when you’re needing to calm your mind. Don’t allow perfection to get in the way of the process. The point isn’t the product you make it is giving your mind and body something to refocus on.

If you don’t have a closet full of art supplies nearby, you can mentally create the same effect. Focusing on each of your senses and exploring what is around you is a good way to do this as well. For example, you can close your eyes and see what you hear, smell, or taste. You can also bring to mind a positive, uplifting, or relaxing memory.


Physical Outlets

If your heart is racing or your blood pressure is up, a physical task may be the best strategy. Physical exertion lowers the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline – they two primary hormones involved in the 90 second stress response. It also releases endorphins which have the opposite effect as the cortisol response system. Endorphins  allow the body to feel relaxed and the mind to feel at peace and optimistic.

While regular exercise is best to prevent heightened cortisol response, in the heat of the moment a short exertion will have a drastic impact on your mental well-being. You can alternately clench and relax your hands, press your fingertips together firmly, walk on your toes, or stand up and stretch your muscles. A walk is very beneficial as well for calming the cortisol response.


Just breathe

The best stress response is just simply breathing. Think about it – when you’re upset often the first thing someone will say is, “Just breathe.”

Measured and focused breathing is the cornerstone of practices like meditation, yoga, and tai chi which have been found to reduce stress and improve overall health. There are a variety of breathing techniques that you can use to combat stress, one that is easily accessible regardless of if you are in a boardroom or a bedroom is the 4-7-8 method.

The 4-7-8 method forces the person to concentrate on long, measured breaths. This causes the person to not only gain the benefits of the long breaths but also forcing their mind to focus elsewhere, creating the same effect as a repetitive task.

To use the 4-7-8 technique, focus on the following breathing pattern:

  • empty the lungs of air
  • breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds
  • hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds
  • exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds
  • repeat the cycle up to 4 times


The cortisol response is your body’s natural mechanism to best handle stress. The entire process, from beginning to end, only lasts 90 seconds. You have the ability to stop the stress spiral by redirecting your mind instead of reinstating the cortisol response. Using a variety of techniques such as breathing, creative pursuits, and physical activity, you can work with your body’s natural systems to overcome the emotional roller coaster caused by the stress response.


  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
  2. 2. https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/
  3. https://www.themuse.com/advice/science-says-you-should-do-this-the-next-time-youre-stressed-out-so-now
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2018/07/25/heres-how-creativity-actually-improves-your-health/#6f9c7e1113a6
  5. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml
  6. https://www.inc.com/betsy-mikel/the-90-second-rule-to-deal-making-success-from-an-.html
  7. http://resultscoachingglobal.com/boosting-our-emotional-intelligence-the-90-second-rule/
  8. https://www.richardwinters.com/manage-emotions
  9. https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/6-mental-habits-of-people-who-manage-their-emotions-remarkably-well.html
  10. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-anger/201502/the-anger-technique-thats-better-anger-management


Harry Schechter

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