The 90-second rule is one of my favorite techniques to help my clients cope with stress and stop the urge to impulsively turn to food for comfort.
Here’s how it works:
Once you feel triggered with overwhelming emotion and feel that old urge to eat, it takes just 90 seconds for the stress you feel to leave your body. After that, you’re in charge, whether you keep the stress response going and head for the refrigerator, or clear your mind and allow the urge to pass.
I learned about the 90-second rule in My Stroke of Insight, by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Dr. Taylor was a brain scientist at Harvard Medical School when she suffered a stroke that left her unable to perform even simple tasks. Through her recovery she gleaned extraordinary insights about the mind/body/spirit connection.
This is what I learned from Dr. Taylor:
Although there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body and then be completely flushed out of our bloodstream.”
She writes about the chemicals released in her own anger response:
Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.
But how does this help with emotional eating? Let’s use Sandy as an example:
Sandy feels angry after an upsetting phone call with her sister. Her intense feelings trigger the stress response in her body, sending the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, surging through her system. Her muscles tense, her breathing becomes shallow and rapid, her pulse rate rises. Her body is on on overdrive and her mind is swirling with negative mental chatter. She instinctively thinks, “Get me out of here!” and heads to the refrigerator to ground herself.
Now, watch what happens when Sandy applies the 90-second rule:
Sandy feels angry about the phone call. While her initial impulse is to keep thinking negative thoughts about her sister, she remembers the 90-second rule. She sits down, closes her eyes, and observes the energy moving through her body. She breathes and counts slowly to 40 as 90 seconds pass. When she opens her eyes, her body feels calmer. She still feels upset with her sister but is more composed. Instead of turning to food, she decides to write in her journal.
The 90-second rule gives you confidence to pause because you know your body’s stress response will eventually wash out of your system.
When you hold onto the stressful thoughts, such as blame and anger, they re-stimulate the circuitry and keep the stress response activated in your body.
This doesn’t mean you deny your feelings. It just means you hit pause to help you create space between the urge to eat and acting on that urge. When you stop, you allow the sensations to flow through you. Once your body rests, your mind softens. This helps you regroup to make a conscious, more empowered choice about what to do next.
Be patient with yourself as you use the 90-second rule for emotional eating. At first, it may feel easier to use this in some situations than in others. That’s okay. Have faith that as you consistently practice the 90-second rule, over time you’ll turn to food less often, and ultimately, heal from emotional eating.
So, next time you’re in the grip of an upset and find yourself running for the fridge, stop. Sit for a minute and a half, breathe, and see if letting the feelings flow though you for 90 seconds allows that obsession to calm. Let me know if you try this and how it goes.