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 Best Friendship In The World

Three friends together laughing
You can listen to a podcast of this post at Keep On with Abigail Wallace.

I am a mess of unfinished business. I feel pangs of “in process-ness” every single day. Not that I have attained or been made perfect, Paul said. But if there is anything true, lovely or admirable about me, odds are it was shaped by my friends.

The truth is, I wouldn’t be me without my friends.

God Grows Us Through Our Friends

But spiritually, as physically, we can’t usually see growth happen. Discouraged, we ask: God, how are you working in me?

If you’ve ever wondered about how exactly God does work in you, here’s a great answer.

…[It] is rather like the woman in the first war who said that if there were a bread shortage it would not bother her house because they always ate toast. If there is no bread there will be no toast. If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings. He works on us in all sorts of ways […] But above all, He works on us through each other…

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 7

God works in us through our friends.

Our Friends, God’s Grace

God uses their hugs to love and heal us, their words to convict and encourage us. God transforms us through our friends. Christian friendships are a means of grace.

If the phrase “means of grace” is new to you, it refers to the ways in which the Holy Spirit works in our lives to make us more like Christ. We can think of them as “channels through which God’s love and power flow” to his people. Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments are means of grace.

But Christian friendship is too. Friends are a massive means of God’s grace to us—his transforming, often uncomfortable, grace.

Smoothing And Honing

A few months ago, a friend asked me if I saw any “blind spots” in her. That question is not for the faint of heart. But if she could do it, I could too. So I asked her the same. What she said is another post and I’m not suggesting that you ask.

But I do hope that you have friends close enough to smooth your rough spots and to hone your dull edges. Because we all have those.

Good friends shape us as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17) and as sandpaper rubs wood (“walking with the wise,” Proverbs 13:20). The second process is more gradual and gentle. It throws fewer sparks.

But both are needful. The sanding that comes naturally from walking together is as necessary for our spiritual growth as trusted wounds from a friend (Proverbs 27:5-6).

What Friends Sharpen You?

Author and blogger Tim Challies couldn’t be more clear about why we need iron-sharpens-iron friends.

You need spiritual friendships for the sake of your soul; a sinful person who can hold tight to your depravity. You are a weak-eyed person who often cannot see yourself as you are; a selfish person who sometimes struggles to live for anyone or anything apart from yourself. And you need friends who will help you, serve you, strengthen you, equip you. You need friends to temper your weakness, to challenge your sinfulness, to comfort your sorrows, to speak truth into your tragedies.

Foster Your Friendships

I am a weak-eyed person who cannot see myself as I am. I need friends. You needs friends.

So who sharpens you? Who is sharpened by you?

What Friends Rub Off On You?

While iron sharpening iron implies a focus and directness that might hurt, sandpaper relationships need not rub us wrong. I think of these type of friendships as those that shape us in less direct, edge-of-blade sort of ways.

Our friends influence us—and not only the closest five—simply by allowing us close enough so that they can rub off on us.

Here’s a short list of some sandpapery friends. Not that they’ve never been iron-sharpening friends, but they come to mind now less for their words and more for their rub-off influence.

They are soft-spoken friends like Traci and Brooke who help me to speak more gently and huge-hearted friends like Julia and Chrissy who make me want to give. They are self-controlled friends like Hannah and Mary who help me skip second dessert and hospitable friends like Christin and Jen who make me open to host. Ginny and Donna’s prayers spur me to be faithful in prayer, Sarah and Sandra’s pure hearts show me dirt in mine, and Shari and Myrt’s art help me see beauty. Then there’s my good friend mom.

This list could go on and on. God must give me so many good friends because there are so many prickly sides of me.

We all have those sides. So what friends are rubbing off your rough sides and rubbing off of you?

The Best Friendship In The World

Michael Haykin’s Iron Sharpens Iron is a short book about great friendships. I haven’t read it yet, but I intend to. (Any friends out there who’d like to read it with me? 😄 ) My gratitude to Tim Challies for his book review.

This excerpt is from John Ryland’s sermon at the funeral of his friend Andrew Fuller. Their friendship, Ryland said, had

never met with one minute’s interruption by any one unkind word or thought, of which I have any knowledge. I never had a friend who was so willing to stand by me, even in such services as most others would wish to decline; yet I never had a friend who would more faithfully, freely, and affectionately give me warning or reproof, if ever it appeared necessary; or whom I could more readily and freely, and without the least apprehension of giving offence, tell of any fault which I imagined I could see in him. And this I think is the best friendship in the world. 

For no man is faultless; and true friendship will not be blind to the failings of those we love best; but will rather show itself in an anxious concern to prevent the least appearance of evil in them, or whatever might occasion their good intentions to be misrepresented. […]This most faithful and judicious friend is taken from me, and never will my loss be repaired upon earth!

I’ve been reflecting on that description all week.

It is exquisite because it tells how iron and sandpaper meld. Fuller was a friend who both stood by and warned. He faithfully and affectionately warned, Ryland said, and was so willing to stand by me.

And this I think is the best friendship in the world. 

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.

Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:15