The 90-Second Rule: What If You Don't Have 90 Seconds?

Dr. Jill Taylor's rule sounds good, until a split-second decision must be made.

Posted May 22, 2020

According to neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, from the moment a threat—or the thought that there is a threat—triggers the release of stress hormones, our ability to think clearly is impaired for about 90 seconds. During that time, executive function, our high-level thinking, doesn't work well. Dr. Taylor suggests we take a 90-second break before taking action so the stress hormones that cloud our thinking can burn off.

That may be good advice for couples when they are angry at each other, or when a parent loses their temper with a child. But, as a fighter pilot, I never had the luxury of waiting 90 seconds before dealing with an emergency. That's why first responders, as well as pilots, do repetitive training to establish well-thought-out steps in "unconscious procedural memory," a brain function that works well even when stress hormone levels are high.

Unconscious procedural memory can also be trained to neutralize the negative effect stress hormones have on executive function. This is done by repeatedly activating the parasympathetic nervous system when an increase in stress is noted.  A fully activated parasympathetic nervous system keeps executive function from being impaired by stress hormones. 

You can establish a program in unconscious procedural memory that activates the parasympathetic nervous system automatically when stress hormones are released. You then don't need to wait and let your mind clear.

How can you establish this program? The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by signals associated with the face, the voice quality, and the touch/body-language of a person who is safe to be with physically and emotionally.

Scan through your internal database of people you know. Find at least one person who is easy-going and tends to be non-judgmental. For a person to be emotionally safe to be with. This needs to be a person who doesn't criticize you or judge you. In fact, it is best that they don't even give you advice because, in a way, advice is a form of judgment, that they know better than you what you need to do. The character Jeff Bridges played in "The Big Lebowski" might be a good role model.

Then, for the next few days, every time you notice an increase is stress hormones, do the following: (this is an excerpt from my book, Panic Free Pandemic Workbook: Exercises To Calm Pandemic-Related Fear, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia).

  1. Bring to mind feeling arousal (rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, sweatiness, tension). Pretend your friend walks into the room. You see their face. This links the feeling of arousal to the calming signals on their face.
  2. Imagine your friend says hello. This links the calming signals in the quality of their voice to arousal.
  3. Imagine your friend comes over and gives you a hug. This links your friend’s calming touch to the feeling of arousal.

After a few days of intentionally responding to neutralize increased arousal, your unconscious procedural memory will maintain your emotional balance for you when stress hormones are released.

References

Robinson, B.E., The 90-Second Rule that Builds Self-Control. Psychology Today