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 Solution to Pollution is Dilution

When good speakers prepare, they anticipate the questions their listeners might ask. Last weekend I was blessed to speak at a women’s retreat.

And there was one question I was not ready for.   

Perfectionism, Stagnation, or Growth?

I’ll tell you about the question that stopped my cold in a minute. But let me start here where I started with the group: growth. I don’t take for granted that we all embrace a growth mindset.

But keeping growth as the goal guards against two life-choking dangers: perfectionism and stagnation. Perfectionism says I can’t believe I messed up. How could I have done that? It won’t bend. It demands 100% in ourselves or others- now. And when failure inevitably comes perfectionism crumbles in defeat.

But stagnation is equally stifling. It wallows and argues that change is simply impossible. That’s just the way I am, it reasons, I can’t help it. John Piper calls it spiritual fatalism and says it’s when we feel that genetic forces and family forces and the forces of past experiences and present circumstances are just too strong to allow us to change. 

A focus on growth prevents both perfectionism and spiritual fatalism. To say that we can amend the soil is to embrace growth.

How’s your soil?

“Amending the Soil” was the theme- it was all about how we can change the “pH of our hearts” for greater fruitfulness, productivity and growth.

With that growth groundwork laid, we moved to a list of “faith fertilizers,” found in 2 Peter 1:5-7. Add-ins like patience and love and self-control that change our heart soil so good things- or more good things- can grow. 

Then we landed on verse 8: For if these qualities are yours and are increasingnote: increasing and growing, not perfected and arrived at- they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Adding these qualities changes our “soil” for good. 

Now I asked the ladies to describe the current state of their heart soil. Was it muddy, weedy, rocky, or clay? Exhausted, high-yield, wild, or dry? 

The responses were what you expect from hard-working women on a weekend retreat: plenty of exhausted souls, two weedy women and one wild woman. Sharing time was going swimmingly.

Until Shelly chimed in with the question that stopped me cold.

What about contaminated soil?

What about contaminated soil? I’m surrounded by toxic relationships at work and at home. How am I supposed to change those? 

Alrighty then. Easy for me to talk about growth and change and growing in grace. But I was not prepared for this. 

Back to the garden metaphor for a minute. My dad adds coffee grounds to the soil around his blueberries to help the plants grow. But what if there’s a can of paint buried next to the blueberry plants seeping its poisons into the roots? 

What about polluting influences and toxic people we can’t escape? How does growth come then?

The Solution to Pollution? Dilution.

Thankfully, my friend Susanne came to my rescue: The solution to pollution is dilution, she said with a grin.

Susanne’s a nurse and she knows. You can’t always remove toxins from the blood, but you can dilute them. You can insert an IV and dilute with fluids.

To go back to the garden metaphor, it means if you dilute a pollutant enough, the resultant intensity of the pollution is reduced; therefore adding clean material to a contaminated product will reduce the toxicity of the resultant mix…diluting the intensity will reduce the potency of a problematic pollutant with dilution.

Shelly was right. We can’t remove all the corruption around us. Workplaces, families of origin, debilitating diseases- all be out of our control.

But we can “reduce the potency of the problematic pollutant.” We can do that.

Change what you can change.

We can’t always change our circumstances. Our world is polluted. It is contaminated and polluted and we feel it. Little ones get infected and we weep. As much as we’d like to insulate ourselves and those we love from contamination, we just can’t.

But we can change what we can change. We can dilute the toxic influences in our soil with good influences.

We are not spiritual fatalists, so toxic relationships” need not hinder growth. We can phone a friend and say, Help me please or text a group, Please pray. We can open the Bible and let its pure words cleanse our contaminated souls.

It won’t be easy. It will take God’s power energizing our effort to “reduce the potency” of the pollution we can’t escape. But we can–we must- dilute.

But there will come a day. 

But there will come a day when we won’t have to deal with toxic people and debilitating diseases, with polluted water and contaminated land. All mysterious will be bright at last.

All will be healed and clean. There will be no toxins seeping or wounded weeping then. And there will be abundant fruit. 

But while we await that glorious day, the best solution to pollution might just be dilution. 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face…

Revelation 22:1-4a