Stress is something we are all familiar with. It is the mental and physical state we feel when we experience something challenging or even threatening to our wellbeing. Our body has a stress response system that represents the parts of the brain, organs and hormones that come to work together in order to combat stress. In order to understand our ability to tackle stress and build resilience in times of adversity, it is important for us to know how the brain works and what tools are at our disposition to tackle the mental and physical impacts of stress.
The amygdala, a brain structure the size of a small kidney bean, is crucial in our attempts to decode our emotions. Whenever something stressful happens, the amygdala is the first port of call that sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which in turn connects to the rest of our body through the automatic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic). Our Fight or Flight reactions stem from this connection that is so efficient, our brain’s visual centers often can’t keep up or fully process what is going on. As a result of this, the brain can often bypass the prefrontal cortex - the most developed part of the brain that helps us to control our emotional responses by processing what is going on.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman called this the “amygdala hijack,” whereby we react to stressful situations without thinking, often resulting in shame for our irrational behaviour. There have even been studies done on animals that proved that during prolonged periods of stress, our prefrontal cortex essentially goes off-line leaving the effects of stress without our ability to adequate process what is going on.
According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, it only takes 90 seconds for us to tune into what we are feeling, identify the emotion, and allow it to go simply by recognizing it. It is in those 90 seconds that a chemical reaction takes place in the body and when we slow down the activity of the amygdala, we calm the brain enough to better understand what is going on and then release it. Without the ability to slow down, we create stories in our heads that recreate the emotion and leave us in an emotional loop.
The 90 Second Rule asks us to identify the emotional reaction, to label it, to sit with it (without judgement or a desire to change it), and then let it go.