The 90 Second Rule: Learn to Master Your Emotional Circuitry

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.”

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 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 – real or perceived – your hypothalamus readies your systems to operate under a heightened state of arousal. The hypothalamus is a small region at your brain’s base which activates the combination of nerve and hormonal signals that prompt your adrenal glands to release 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.

This creates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In slightly more comprehensible terms, this is the loop between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland. It’s 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 in response. This increase of 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, and thus the loop is closed.

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. This includes 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 only the 90 seconds it takes for the loop to begin and close again.

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.

If you want to be able to limit your response, it is vital 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.

Once you’re able to recognize the response, let’s learn how to beat the 90-second cycle and keep our sabre-tooth fighting brain under control.

You Can 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.

I use this concept with a strategy called “Pause and Ask for a Reason.” I talk more about that particular strategy in this article , but suffice to say… It’s always a good thing to take time to pause and let calm feelings take over.

So how do we turn off the heat? Let’s break it down into easy, actionable steps.

How to Use 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

Let’s explore what each of these options mean, and some options for redirecting your attention and energy.

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 mental hold on upsetting factors – 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, psychologist.

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.

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. 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… the point 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. Focus on each of your senses and explore what is around. 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 to stop the cortisol response.

Physical exertion lowers the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline – the 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 a 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 often 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 whether 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 forces their mind to focus on something other than whatever is upsetting them, 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

Experiment with these strategies until you find one, or several, that work for you to recircuit your body’s 90 second stress response.


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.

Have you tried putting any of these 90-Second-Rule techniques into practice? We’d love to hear about it! Comment below, or send us an email with your success story, and we’ll share it in our next newsletter.

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More reading about the 90 Second Response

Harry Schechter


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