Thoughts Boss Feelings: How the 90-Second Reset is Changing My Life

90-second timer on phone to deal with bad feelings

No one can make you feel mad, bad, sad or less-than. I used to tell that to myself and my sons.

But it turns out, I was wrong. People absolutely can make us feel mad, bad and less-than. People can set us off. Specifically, they can set off a neurochemical response we can’t resist.

But only for 90 seconds. At least that’s what brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor says.

Can’t Stop The Feeling, But You Can Reset

I’ll explain. When someone, which might include myself, says or does something that makes me feel any of these negative emotions—say someone hurls hurtful words with a kernal of truth, or I say put my foot in mouth and blush— a shot of the cortisol bursts into the blood stream. The stress hormone is in my bloodstream for 90 seconds. I can’t help feel mad, bad, sad or less-than for those 90 seconds.

But after 90 seconds I can help it. I can choose. But it might be hard.

Because if the trigger for those stress hormones sets off a memory of a past trauma, podcaster Alisa Keeton says, “that story is in your neurology, in your neural pathways.” Keeton explains that once we have the physiological response of offense or stress or anger or shame it can “hook right into that memory and the memory drives the car.”

Triggers are real. We can’t stop the feeling.

But we can help whether we ruminate on the story after that initial burst of stress hormone fades in 90 seconds. Even if your life story is one of trauma or mistreatment, true thoughts can boss your feelings. You can get out of that story, take the wheel, and steer the car.

But we can only do that if we have a better story than the one our raw emotions will keep telling us.

We need a truer script.

What’s Your Truth Script?

That’s why we must know the word of God. The world has its “affirmations,” and some contain truth. But Christians have God’s eternal, rock-solid truth. His word—his living, nourishing, sanctifying word— is truth. It’s this truth we need to tell ourselves.

When I mess up and get bossy with the same people in the same way, again, I don’t need: “Inhale confidence, exhale doubt,” or “I let go of that which does not serve me.” These affirmations are not a better, truer script.

Rather I need a truth script myself, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” and “Though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand.” It’s truth like this that I need.

I love how Alisa Keeton fleshes this out in her podcast:

My story is best rewriting itself in light of the thought of who God is. In 90 seconds I have a choice to think in line with God and his word and heaven’s reality or I can think in line my present experience, the story of my pain and my hurt.

Which story will we choose?

Keeton’s advice is good: If someone disrespected you and you’re on your way to the pantry or Amazon, give it 90 seconds. Before you eat or drink or yell back or shop, be still and feel. Ride the wave of negative feelings out.

Feel The Feelings, Then Boss The Feelings

Dr. Jill says if we stay angry or anxious longer than 90 seconds, it’s because we are rerunning that loop. We are rethinking the thoughts that re-stimulate the emotional circuit. Then, here we go again on that ride. Another wave is out.

To recap: At any one moment one of three things is happening: a thought, a feeling, a physiological response to what you’re thinking and feeling (stress hormones pumped into the bloodstream). If we have a thought that stimulates anger or anxiety, the physiological response is the adrenaline in the blood stream. From the first of the thought until the adrenaline is completely flushed out of blood is about 90 seconds. We can observe rather than engage.

If we are in Christ, we have power to resist the temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13) and to “observe ourselves” rather than give way and engage in the negative story. This is Joshua saying “choose this day who you will serve” (Joshua 24:15), and Paul calling us to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Are you feeling shame? Feel it. Name it. Confess and repent if it comes from real guilt. Then choose life. Choose truth.

I got to do that this afternoon.

How I Bossed My Feelings Today

It looked like this. I felt a wave of guilt and shame for a parenting choice I’d made, not once but over years. I observed myself in a new, painful way. When the thought came to mind, I felt sick to my stomach and tears welled up in my eyes.

For about 90 seconds. I rode the cortisol shame wave and then, glory to God, I got off.

And then, by the grace of God, I did two things. I chose a better meaning than the story of the “The Tiger Mom Who Tore Her House Down.” I could have lived in that story. (This is not to say there are no hard consequences for us. There are.) But I repented and confessed.

God gave me with a better truth script. Those who look to the Lord are radiant. Their faces are never covered with shame.

This is about reframing the pain. It’s about realizing that discomfort won’t kill us, and that God disciplines those he loves. It doesn’t mean he’s mad at us. It’s James 1 and Romans 5. It’s the truth that God uses trials—which even include cortisol blood spikes when people are mean and we screw up—to make us mature and complete and lacking nothing.

So we realize that the negative feelings will subside. Stay present and feel. Ride the wave and look for God’s love.

Include that in your truth script.

3 Ways The Reset Helps

The 90-second reset is just a tool. A bit of knowledge that is a gift from God.

Why is the 90-second reset so revolutionary for me? These three reasons explain why.

  1. It is an acknowledgment that words can hurt us. It assures me that it’s part of the design that as a thinking, feeling creature made in God’s image, the stress hormones he made affect me.
  2. Because it explains why, try as I might, I just can’t stop the feeling. At least not for those first 90 seconds. It explains why even though my head knows another truth, I still feel lousy.
  3. Because it’s a tool to help me do Romans 12:2 and renew my mind, and do Philippians 4:8 and think on true things, and do 2 Corinthians 10:5 and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
Would you consider dropping a comment if this 90-second reset is helping you?

Or confusing you? I’d like to know that too.

Make Meaning, In God’s Story

Have you heard of Viktor Frankl? He was an Austrian psychiatrist and Jewish Holocaust surviver. He was also a great observer.

In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote,

When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves… Everything can be taken from a human but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Frankl was not, that we know of, a Christ-follower. But he knew that it was ours to choose. In Christ, we are free to write ourselves into his grand story where there is righteousness, peace and joy. Where, one day, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.

That inner freedom helped Frankl survive Auschwitz and find meaning in his tragedy. As Keeton says, our response is our response-ability. We are responsible to assign meaning. We must choose. Frankl chose his response to his circumstances instead of letting the circumstances dictate to him.

Corrie ten Boom was a Holocaust survivor too. And she knew the same truth. Jesus did not promise to change the circumstances around us, Corrie said. He promised great peace and pure joy to those who would learn to believe that God actually controls all things.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made, fight-or-flight, life-saving hormones included, by a loving God who controls all things.

As such, we need not be slaves to our feelings.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2 (ESV)

The Dog We Feed

Two dogs are fighting inside you. It’s a battle for your mind and the dog you feed the most wins.

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Romans 7: 22-23

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.  Romans 12:2a

Thursday afternoon was to be all mine. Translated: Four hours of uninterrupted, precious writing time. A very, very rare gift it was, to have nothing at all in the schedule from one to five.

Not. One. Thing. 

You know where this is going. I’ll go there soon.

But first, I was witness to a miracle yesterday. I know it was a miracle because what happened was surprising and welcome and not explicable by natural laws and thus considered the work of a divine agency. Check, check, check and check- surprising, welcome, not explained by natural laws.

And most definitely what happened was a work of God.

Yesterday, I got my mind to mind.

Yup. That’s it.

What I mean is in this. Usually, when little storms like yesterday’s blow through, and change my plans, I recoil. My thoughts stray from the trust in God place they should stay. The place where my lips say to God, You are good and do good alwaysas the storm clouds roll.

The place where I say that and I mean that and that keeps me from going astray and grumbling. The place where I live in light of the truth of God’s goodness. And obey.

It’s the place where the war wages and I take thoughts captive as the come and my mind minds.

Taken Captive Or Taking Captive?

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 
2 Corinthians 10:5

Often when my schedule is stymied and my plans gets nixed my mind doesn’t mind. 

I’m taken captive and don’t live in light of the truth that as God’s chosen child, He will work all things, including unavoidable little interruptions and surprise storms, for good. I’m taken captive instead of taking thoughts captive to make them obedient to Christ.

But something different happened yesterday. I took some thoughts captives and made them obey. I made my mind mind and really believed that the thunderclouds that ended a tennis lesson too fast for my taste were indeed a good thing.

The stronghold torn down was the one that holds me fast, a lot. That I am the master of my agenda, my desires, my time. That kind of mind must be renewed.

Here’s what I mean.

It started with storm clouds, when the sun went hiding and these beauties blew through. Some thunder, too, cut Son One’s tennis lesson short.

And that little change, caused by the billowy-clouds of one fast-moving front, meant an errand got delayed and another one got added and the day got off-kilter and before I knew it, my precious, all-mine afternoon was almost gone.

Which still does not explain the miracle. That’s coming.

But to see the miracle, you must know this one thing. G.K. Chesterton wrote, and I like to quote, A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. I’m not naturally a “go with the flow,” kinda girl.

Go With What Flow?

If we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 
Galatians 5:25

That trait is both for better and worse.

And worse shows up when storms blow in and upset my plans and I learn once again, I’m not really in control. That the whole control thing is an illusion, at least when it comes to events and people. My mind knows.

My MO is to fight storms with storms. Short, harsh words to my kids thunder. Or resentful cool fronts push against whoever it was that thwarted my plans. That’s the ugly underside of fighting the current- the woe in not going with the flow.

But for the better part of yesterday afternoon, I did. I went with the flow. When the storm changed my plans, I kept in step with the Spirit. As I did, I was able to test and approve what was good and choose what was better: time shopping with my guys, buying them new tennis shoes, and an unplanned visit with an old friend and, well, before I knew it, it was ten to four.

My mind was renewed by the Spirit. It did mind God’s truth. It obeyed. With each passing hour, each added errand, each little unexpected visit, I was not overwhelmed. I held my peace and didn’t begrudge the delays. My mind minded. And that was nothing short of a miracle. 

Or maybe it was just the best-fed, strongest dog winning the fight.

Freedom To Mind

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 
1 Peter 2:16

There are plenty of versions of the two dogs story, there’s at least a Cherokee version and this northern version. Billy Graham used this version in his book, “The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power In Your Life,” 

An Eskimo fisherman came to town every Saturday afternoon. He always brought his two dogs with him. One was white and the other was black. He had taught them to fight on command. Every Saturday afternoon in the town square the people would gather and these two dogs would fight and the fisherman would take bets. On one Saturday, the black dog would win; another Saturday the white dog would win- but the fisherman always won! His friends began to ask him how he did it. He said, “I starve one and feed the other. The one I feed always wins because he is always stronger.”

So the ticket to getting the mind to mind is feeding the right dog. Making that dog strong.

But when our minds don’t mind, when we don’t keep in step with the Spirit, when we fuss and grumble against the God-ordained changes in our plans, when- my time is blown away by God’s storm and we rage on, we’re not free. We’re feeding the wrong dog and he’s winning the fights. But that need not be.

We Christians alone can be truly free. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. We can feed the good dog and make it strong. We can wage the war and win.

Our minds can mind. Here’s how.

Feed The Right Dog

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Philippians 4:8

This kind of freedom means we can do what we want to do and what we want to do is what we ought to do.  As John Piper puts it, Transformation is doing what you ought to do and loving to do it.

I recently read an article by Philip Holmes, enticingly titled, How to Have a Happy Life. It’s on point. We do have a lot of say in getting our minds to mind. We can set ourselves up to have a good day. There are steps we can take to make our minds mind.

Since our brains are only able to process parts of reality at any one time, it’s impossible to focus on everything going on around us. Our brains filter information out all the time. Because of that, all of us are experiencing “a very subjective, incomplete version of reality.”

[O]ur brains consciously notice whatever is at the forefront of our minds. So if someone is in a bad mood (say you spill coffee on yourself), the brain will recognize that you’re in a bad mood and will begin to shape your perception of everything else in a way that confirms the world is a terrible place. The same goes the other way. If you put yourself in a positive mood, you’ll start to see the world in a more positive light. Another term for this is “confirmation bias” or “selective attention.”

As another example, she points out that if we’re meeting with someone we believe is a jerk, we’re more likely to notice things about them that confirm our judgment. We end up missing qualities that may paint this person in a more positive light. But if we go in aware of our assumptions, we set ourselves up to see and appreciate the good qualities in this person, instead of only noticing the negative. 

This all means that, by understanding “the rules,” and provided Spirit power, we are able to shift how we perceive events around us. Storm clouds and all.

Holmes cites a little Jeremiah Burrough’s book called, Contentment, Prosperity, and God’s Glory. His wisdom is 400 years-old, but it’s timeless. He advises us to have these same “good thoughts of God and his dealings with us.” Training ourselves to think like this will definitely help our minds mind.

Have good thoughts of God and make good interpretations of his dealings toward you. It is very hard to live comfortably and cheerfully among friends when one makes harsh interpretations of the words and actions of another. The only way to keep sweet contentment and comfort in Christian societies is to make the best interpretations of things we can. Likewise, a primary way to help keep comfort and contentment in our hearts is to make good interpretations of God’s dealings with us. 

This doesn’t mean we won’t have hard days, that there won’t be storms that upset our plans. Storms will come. But it does mean, and I quote Holmes again,

If we embrace that reality that the sovereign God who controls the universe knows us by name and loves us as children and heirs, everything that happens to us will be filtered through these promises. We will begin to see everything, even the hard things, as ultimately good things. 

This miracle of the mind doesn’t just happen though. We must act the miracle. Jesus works the miracle. He told the paralyzed man to walk. But that man obeyed. He got up. He acted the miracle.

When the storms come we get up, we talk back to the sinful grumbling mind. We tell ourselves to stop grumbling and get up and walk. The Spirit of Jesus us gives the command-to trust, to believe it really all is good- and we act that miracle.

Miracle, or Best Fed Dog?

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 
Romans 13:14

Much ado about a little storm and your upset plans one afternoon, you mumble. Granted.

Sort of.

Because in a way, what happened Thursday was just a little overflow of the Spirit at work inside, bringing God’s truth to mind. It doesn’t make for a miracle. I mean, I’ve been memorizing Ephesians 5 for a month now. So in a way my go with the flow was just proof that if you starve the “my-time, flesh dog” and feed the good, renewed-mind dog, the stronger dog will win.

True enough. The fisherman won every bet. Nothing supernatural here.

Or is there?

Because really, the “best fed dog wins” answer just kicks the miracle question down the road. It really just begs another. Maybe the greater miracle than a mind that minds is that anyone at all would have eyes to see God’s glory and freely want to do his will?

Maybe the greater miracle is that anyone of us would choose to feed the calm, meek dog that’s forever at odds with selfish, my-time me?

Maybe the greater miracle is that God would give any of us eyes to see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. That He would shine that light through the our little storms so that we’d even want to feed the good dog. And that, if we did, Christ would give us his mind.

I- swim-upstream, fight-storm-with-storm, Type-A agenda-maker and plan-pusher- for one, think it is.

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:16