How to get out of an emotional loop: the 90 seconds rule

Have you ever noticed how dogs can growl one minute, and then playfully wag their tail the next?

If you observe animals, they all do it. With horses, they will be terrified by something one second, and then curiously go and check it out it the next. They will pin their ears back in a defensive mode, and then put their head down and graze.

Yet, most of us humans, experience emotions in a very different way. When we go through negative emotions, we often feel that we get “stuck” in that emotion and that we can’t get rid of it. Anger, specifically, tends to linger on despite our best efforts. Even when we think we have finally moved on, we often feel the anger surge again later on through our body and mind.

Is it possible for us to be more like animals and quickly exit negative emotions? How can we get out of a negative emotional loop? How can we free ourselves from lingering sadness, anger, fear etc?

An emotion is designed to last about 90 seconds. That’s right. You can read that again.

An emotion is designed to last about 90 seconds.

The neuroscientist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor explains that 90 seconds is the time it takes for emotions to go through the body and be flushed out.

“When a person has a reaction to something in their environment there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.” Dr Jill Bolte Taylor

When you think about it, this makes sense. An emotion is an information, it is a message.

When something happens, your mind processes it and then sends a message to your body - the emotion - preparing it for action. If you feel fear, it’s because your mind believes there is a danger you need to prepare to run away from. If you feel anger, your mind believes there is something you need to defend yourself from.

If our emotion lasts longer than 90 seconds, it is because it is being fuelled by our thoughts. In other words, the issue is not that we are stuck in an emotional loop, but rather that we are stuck in a thought loop. We keep on having one - or more - thoughts that are triggering that emotion over and over again.

In other words, the issue is not that we are stuck in an emotional loop, but rather that we are stuck in a thought loop.

When you realise that a negative emotion is lasting more than 90 seconds, you need to analyse the thought process that is going on inside your head.

Let’s imagine that I’m driving and another car comes dangerously close to mine. I suddenly feel fear, possibly anger too, and I honk. The other car then drives off. Even though the danger is gone, chances are that I will stay angry for a while. I will think things like: “How could this driver be so dangerous? How dare he drive like this?” These thoughts are triggering my anger, which will therefore last much longer than the 90 seconds it is designed to exist for.

Now let’s take the example of a dog growling. Let’s say that he’s growling because another dog came too close to him. Once that other dog is gone, he will stop growling. The dog experienced an emotion - in this case anger or aggression. The emotion dissipated when the trigger was gone, i.e. when the other dog left.

Imagine if the dog continued growling on his own, even after the other dog had moved away. In a human equivalent, the dog would be thinking “How dare this dog come so close? How dare he disrespect me like that?” as he sat there, on his own, growling to himself. Kinda silly, right?

So next time you feel stuck in an emotional loop, don’t blame the emotion. Look instead at the thoughts going in your mind that are triggering these emotions. Once you can control these thoughts, you can control your emotions.

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