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90 Second rule to build Emotional Self-Control

Leadership Series designed for our Times

As we have entered a new national lockdown, it is easy for our thoughts to spiral out of control especially if we watch the news! Our fear can always get the better of us, but we can obtain perspective if we take a moment to pause…..

Fear is a primitive response designed to protect us, but we do not get upgrades every year alongside our mobile phones! Fear drives our emotion responses, which in essence are stored memories wired into our central nervous system.

When we are confronted by fear we have a choice on how to deal with it after a 90 second window according to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor a neuroanatomist at Harvard Medical School, who states:

“When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process

that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional


(Robinson, E: 2020)

So what’s happening in this chemical process? Your body is releasing the stress hormone cortisol in response to stimuli in the environment activating our fight or flight system. You will notice your body reacting, which can show up in different ways. For example you could feel butterflies in your stomach, a tightening of your throat, sweaty palms, a tightening of the chest or some other reaction.

After the hormone has been secreted if you do nothing you will note that the brain then takes over, and your mind can go into a tailspin filling with all sorts of negative thoughts increasing your levels of stress. Exposing your body to constant levels of negative stress creates a biochemical reaction that weakens your immune system and can lead to long term health issues.

So how do you get back in control? By being aware of the signs in your body. You will know what these are. (For example, a lot of people have a reaction when they have to speak to an audience). Put a plan in place to deal with a fear reaction when it happens. This could include setting the timer on your phone for 90 seconds (remember you can’t do anything for the first 90 seconds), practice some deep diaphragmatic breaths (this is breathing at the point below your navel). If you are sitting in a chair wiggle down and ground yourself, and contemplate your connection with the Earth below you. What does this do? This prevents the signals from your body travelling upwards into your brain and your thoughts going into that tailspin, consequently placing you back in the driving seat.

Practicing mindfulness, meditation and adopting routine exercise helps you keep balance and maintain your serotonin (the feel good hormone) at healthy levels, and counteract your body being constantly hijacked by fear. However, it requires practice and work. Please see our article on ‘Hacking your Code to Lead with Vigour’, which provides tools and practices to keep your state of wellbeing in check.

Being mindful of your fear triggers can help you remain calm and balanced. As leaders, your teams look to you to provide consistency, reassurance and on-point messaging. By being aware of triggers within team members, and passing on some tools to keep wellbeing in check augments the employee experience, which is probably at the top of your agenda right now.

This article was put together by Sean Smythe, Principal Consultant at Polaris HR Ltd, www.polarishr.com. Sean is a seasoned HR expert who distils key insights for the busy leader so they stay informed, take action and feel in control on employment matters.


Robinson, E (2020)

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-right-mindset/202004/the-90-second-rule-builds-self-control [Posted 26 Apr 2020].



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