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The 90-Second Rule: Reacting to Hippopotamuses

By: Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

According to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard brain Scientist, there is a 90-second chemical process that happens within the brain and body in reaction to an external stimulus that feels dangerous or threatening. After this takes place, the person has a choice to make. Do I want to stay in this emotional loop or can I leave this behind? Any additional emotional response is the result of remaining within that loop. When something happens in our external world, charged chemicals run through our bodies, which puts us into full alert (also known as fight or flight mode). For these chemicals to fully flush out of the body, it takes a mere 90 seconds. According to Dr. Taylor, after those 90 seconds, “if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the re-circuity that is resulting in you having this physiological reaction, over and over again.”

Emotional Cheat Sheet

When trying to identify what is going on within you, what you are feeling and how to rid yourself of this undesirable feeling, try using the basic identification of emotion: mad, sad, glad, afraid, or ashamed. This is crucial as you have to be aware of the identified feeling before you attempt to observe it moving through you. Don’t judge yourself or try to change the emotion – allow the feeling to rise, crest and recede, just like an ocean wave. 

Amygdala Hijack 

We have all been victims of the “amygdala hijack” before. This term, coined by Dr. Daniel Goldman (a psychologist who studies emotional intelligence), explores the powerful influence of the part of the brain referred to as the amygdala. This small area, deep within the center of the brain, plays a huge role in emotional functioning. It fully controls our responses to dangerous stimuli, or perceived threats, also known as the fight, flight or freeze response. Due to the fact that these primitive reactions were once vital to our survival, our brain sends information from the outside world directly to the amygdala faster than it does to other parts of our brain. Thus, the amygdala has the ability to fully takeover and bypass the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for and in charge of planning and reasoning. Once this amygdala is in charge, we are beginning to act without thinking…and we all know how that ends up! The amygdala being in charge would be helpful if you were being chased by a hippopotamus, the world’s deadliest mammal, but not so helpful in day to day life, work, social situations, family conflicts, and hippo-free zones. 

The 90-Second Rule: Changing the Course of Your Reaction to Stress

90 Seconds – that’s all it takes. When we are presented with a stressful situation, we should allow ourselves to observe the surrounding emotions for a full 90 seconds. I often suggest counting if this is something that would be helpful to you. In allowing ourselves the simple practice of somatic awareness, posture and breath, we can more accurately get in touch with what is going on in our minds. This way, we will be able to clearly assess what we are feeling before we formulate a response. This leaves more time for processing, so that we can respond appropriately and avoid feelings of shame, guilt or regret when it comes to our actions and reactions. There is no harm in saying to someone, “Hmm, let me think about that for a minute” before responding. 

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Sometimes, the amygdala struggles to tell the difference between a hippo, an annoying client, a traffic jam, or an argument, and this is when we must utilize the 90-second rule. Many of us might be tempted to shut down and ignore what we are feeling completely, which is called suppression. But, if we choose to let the emotion cover over us like a wave, label and identify it, we get our control back and it allows the feeling to dissipate in the process of simply noticing it. Acceptance of the emotion here is key and we should view our emotions as body sensations burdened by thoughts. Easier said than done, sure, but once this practice of emotional resistance becomes a habit, it will start to feel more natural and automatic and you will gain your power back over emotions that are completely overwhelming or all-encompassing.

Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our therapists for individual therapy or couples counseling in Chicago


You Can Change the Course of Your Reaction to Stress in Just 90 Seconds. 1 Body: The Exercise of Human Being. Retrieved from:

Stone, A.M. (2019). 90 Seconds to Emotional Resilience. Retrieved from: 

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