Your body rids itself of the effects of anger in 90 seconds. Now let’s take care of your mind.
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I’m watching a bunch of puppies play with each other. They move from growling and snapping playfully to biting, yelping and withdrawing before running full tilt toward each other again in one big, joyous loop. Even a puppy who gets hurt simply yelps, snaps or bites back or moves away, then throws herself wholeheartedly back into the game. Not once do I see a puppy take another puppy aside and warn him about “that puppy over there who is a jerk.” With puppies, it’s all about getting back to the fun.
I want to be just like them.
In her book, A Stroke of Insight, Neuroscientist and stroke survivor, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor talks about how automatic reactions such as anger trigger a physical reaction that lasts only 90 seconds. After those 90 seconds have passed, we are free to turn our attention elsewhere. “If I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, it’s because I have chosen to let that (neuro) circuit run.”
I’d bet serious money the puppies don’t let that circuit run.
If the body is free to move on after 90 seconds, how can we move with it?
It has to do with where we direct our attention. After those first 90 seconds have passed, we can choose to return to the present where we are peaceful, and free to choose our next thought. Or we can choose to tell ourselves the story of why we got upset, re-igniting anger and the 90-second loop. But here’s the crazy part: If we choose the story, it won’t be anything in the present that is triggering the 90-second physical reaction. It will be the story about what happened. And what happened is now an event in the past. It’s no longer happening.
The upshot is this:
It’s always peaceful in the present. There is no story in the present. Your ability to be in the present is restored after only 90 seconds. Whether to move on is your choice.
Is it really that simple? It really is. But it’s not quite that easy. That 90-second chemical wash is powerful and the storytelling that follows happens so fast it can be hard to catch. And let’s face it: The story can be really compelling. It takes practice to catch yourself in the act, and persistence to redirect your mind. So be kind to yourself about it, and practice.
0. Notice when your anger (or other “triggered” response) is lasting longer than 90 seconds. Recognize that you are choosing to keep your response alive in your mind and body. Taking responsibility for extending your automatic reactions beyond 90 seconds moves you out of being victimized by them. Choosing to remain angry is very different from feeling like you have no choice.
When you want to let go of your story and move on, here is what Dr. Taylor recommends:
1. After the 90 seconds have passed, tell your brain to stop with the story already and redirect your thoughts. Then do it again. And again and as often as it takes to break the habit of listening to the storytelling. The more compelling the story, the more persistent you’ll have to be. Over time, it will get easier.
2. When the story starts up in your brain, use your 5 senses to focus on the present. Look out the window, let in the sounds in the background, inhale a scented candle, get fascinated by the pattern in the carpet, notice how your shirt feels on your skin, feel the warmth of your coffee in your hands. When you’re in the present, it’s easier to resist the story.
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