The 90 Second Rule

Did you know emotions only have a shelf life of 90 seconds? That’s it. 90 seconds. In less time than you can walk to the mailbox and back, in less time than you can clip your fingernails, in less time than you can sauté an onion, your brain has effectively rid itself of the very emotion that – a mere two minutes ago – was coursing intently through your veins.

When Bee was at that facetious toddler age – a little less than 2, maybe? – where they’re just sort of generally causing mayhem all over the place, she pushed an unopened cube of Table Topics off a shelf and onto my left toe. I screamed the most extremely guttural yell, like part cheetah or maybe bat, I don’t know. Bee’s eyes widened; my foot swelled. The toe broke.

(Of note: the Table Topics cube did not.)

I remember the pain lasting a minute or two, and then it dulled to the achy kind for the next six weeks. But in that first minute or two, everything was sharpened:

OMG my toe. I can’t believe that happened. Why didn’t I put the Table Topics higher on the shelf? She could have broken her own toe! Or worse! Why didn’t I know better? My toe hurts. Why am I such a bad mother? My toe hurts, my toe hurts, my toe hurts.

Between deep breaths, the retrieving of an ice pack, Ken coming upstairs from the basement to identify the animal scream, Ken laughing at my overreaction, me yelling at Ken for laughing at my overreaction, Bee darting her eyes back and forth between the two of us like one of those puzzling/creepy oil paintings, the purple, darkening, ominous foot, 90 seconds had passed.

My body had rid itself of the emotion: the surprise, the anger, the pain, the hurt.
My brain had not.

My mind was still holding fast to the story I offered it, the story of a mother who did not effectively protect her child, who did not effectively predict the injury, who surely could not effectively parent. Right? Wasn’t that what had happened? Wasn’t that the lesson here?

I held onto that story for every bit of those six weeks as I hobbled around on the broken toe, as I taped and retaped the injury, as I stuffed the swollen foot into my snow boots and winced, as I replayed what could have happened instead of my own broken toe.

My foot ached for six weeks, and it slowly healed.
But the story stuck around for a bit.

It still comes up. I’m still attaching it to random, miscellaneous emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, doubt. It’s a wonder my left foot doesn’t swell as the very thought reappears: Why am I such a bad mother?

I don’t think I’m a bad mother, of course. It’s a thought, an irrational one at best, completely illogical, and yet, it arrives with the emotion, like a flea on a dog, attaching itself, wading around in the fur far longer than necessary, impossible to rid.

The trick I’m learning, then, is not to invite the flea in the first place.

I’m learning to ride the emotion itself, to set some internal timer, to breathe through what arrives – anger, fear, anxiety, doubt – and to stop making up stories about it.

The emotion leaves every single time.

I’ve heard people sing praises of “breathing through it.” Of breathing through the pain, the chaos, those crazed moment where toddlers wail and dogs bark and toes and hearts break and sanity alarms bellow and good gracious, I am losing my miiiiiiiiind.

And I always thought “breathing through it” was dumb advice, as if life was just one big Lamaze class, and sure, it’s great in theory but when that baby is crowning, you’re probably gonna scream either way.

But.

I can breathe for 90 seconds.
I can do anything for 90 seconds.

I’ve been practicing. And I think it’s been working.

The oxygen helps, sure, but I think what the deep breaths really do is distract your brain from chattering at you. It gives you something else to focus on so you don’t make up wild, angst-ridden stories like a mean drunk at a dinner party.

This is not the time for Table Topics, you’ll say.

Set the timer, 90 seconds.

Quiet now.

Keep breathing.

Shhhhhhh.

Ride the wave.

Another breath.

It’s almost over.

Inhale.

Just 90 seconds.

Exhale.

There.

Begin again.

Now.

  • I was just reading a book last night about breathing! I am a huge yoga/breathing fan…but I love this idea of breathing to focus our minds on something other than creating a story to fit the emotion! It is so true! So thanks for sharing, I love learning new ways to tame my thoughts and be more present! xoxo

  • What a fantastic reminder. Especially as someone who has a tendency towards anxiety… over a thought… not a real happening,… just a passing thought. Yep. 90 seconds to let it go, Love this trick.

    It’s been a while since I’ve visited your blog, and after settling back into just one post, I am hooked once again, Your words mean something to me. Every time I slow down long enough to come by and digest them, I am so grateful that I did. So thank you, for this post, and all the others. And this time, I won;t go so long before coming back ;)

  • I needed this. As a person who doesn’t always let thing roll off her back, I needed this. Stop replaying the stories if they cause you anything but unhappiness.

    • Amen! I’m getting better at letting things roll off my back, but sometimes they still cling to my pant cuffs and linger a bit. ;)

  • Another fantastic essay, Erin! So thoughtfully, beautifully written. This post resonates with me particularly because I am working through a year-long training in women’s wellness, and so far, there’s a definite “physician, heal thyself” feel to the materials. I have a lot of work to do on realigning the typical paths my thoughts take with where I believe they should be. For me, the idea of deep breathing while my sanity is shattering has always seemed something only realistic for already perfectly calm people. Your point about 90 seconds makes it seem so doable. When you know that you just have to make it past those first 90 seconds without buying into the thoughts and emotions that come up, the goal feels more attainable. Thank you for another lovely post! I love checking in with this space you’ve created.

    • Oh Jennifer, I totally hear what you’re saying! Yes, I’ve often felt the same way about deep breathing advice. ;) And I love that you’re on such a worthwhile journey! Wishing you love, joy and support as you embark on this long, winding path! :)

  • Thank you! It was a great story to read and the tip I needed to get back to life, to be here. Amazing!

  • You really need to read: Philosophical Midwifery: a new paradigm for understanding human problems

  • enjoyed so much your message!
    reminded me of my big sisters wisdom when I was emotional about something ‘unfair’ she said with such feeling ” just like a duck out of water, shake your tail feathers and let it go” it probably only took 90 seconds :)

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