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In her amazing book, MY STROKE OF INSIGHT: A BRAIN SCIENTIST’S PERSONAL JOURNEY, Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., maintains that it takes about 90 seconds to pass through the physical phase of experiencing an emotion. Aside from recommending the book as a terrific read, I found her knowledge of and insights into the workings of the brain useful in thinking about behavioral change, in this case about emotional eating.
Taylor says it takes “less than 90 seconds” for an emotion to get triggered, surge chemically through the blood stream, then get flushed out. She goes on to assert that within this brief period of time, the automatic emotional response is complete, so that whatever we feel after that is our choosing. Stunning information! Her take is that we need to be present and open to the feeling at whatever intensity it comes. If we short-circuit it, we won’t receive the full impact of the message it’s delivering. Alternately, if we continue to stoke the fires of the emotion, we’re holding on to discomfort unnecessarily.
Emotions can feel terrifying because of their power and what we believe about them. Some folks are convinced they cannot tolerate affective discomfort and, therefore, choose to eat or in other ways distract themselves to avoid it. Others rationalize or minimize their emotions and, therefore, are not completely present to them. Still others intensify feelings by over-focusing on them until they really do become unbearable and feel overwhelming.
Where are you on this continuum? Where do you want to be? Can you really not stand to feel an emotion for 90 seconds? Next time you’re stressed or distressed, grab your watch or keep your eyes on the clock. Watch the second hand go ‘round one and one-half times. Notice how you feel. Get in the habit of observing how long the physical part of experiencing an emotion takes. Pay attention to what you’re feeling and see if you can simply allow the emotion to wash over and through you. Do nothing, just let it flow.
If you allow yourself the full 90 seconds of experiencing a feeling while staying mindfully in neutral, congratulate yourself. If you distracted yourself before the chemicals were able to naturally flush through your system, be compassionate and remind yourself to try to do better next time. If you’re still hanging onto your feelings after 90 seconds, gently pry yourself away with the reminder that you no longer need to hold on. You felt what you felt and hopefully gained insight or information from the experience and now it’s time to let go. Ninety seconds, that’s all it takes.
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