How long do you think it takes to get over an emotion? Hours, days, years? If you had asked me before I read My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, I probably would have said hours or days – mostly based on how long it takes me to get over being angry sometimes.
Dr. Taylor explained that “when we experience feelings of sadness, joy, anger, frustration, or excitement, these are emotions that are generated by the cells of our limbic system.” So, “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain [limbic system] surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within ninety seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over.” Ninety seconds! Emotions are “completely flushed out of our bloodstream” in 90 seconds. If I hang on to them longer than that, like I sometimes do with anger, it is because I have mentally chosen to hang on to that feeling rather than “allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology.”
Ninety seconds! This was a real news flash for me. As was Dr. Taylor’s explanation that “the healthiest way I know how to move through an emotion effectively is to surrender completely to that emotion when its loop of physiology comes over me. I simply resign to the loop and let it run its course for ninety seconds … emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”
I realized that I am not very good at validating negative emotions. I tend to want to fix or correct them so they will go away quickly – like when we were emptying out my mother-in-law’s house which had just been sold. I heard my husband and daughter talking in the other room. My daughter wanted to find a small knick knack that she had given her grandmother years before so that she could give it to her again at her new retirement home. My husband wanted to get the car loaded and get out of there quickly. I heard him brush her off when she asked where exactly he had put the tiny trinket she was looking for. As soon as she walked into the room I was in she burst out crying. My immediate reaction was to say, “don’t cry”. I didn’t even really know why she was crying, I just wanted her to stop. I thought she was upset because her dad had been brusque with her and I wanted to fix that. That’s my job. Right from day one as a mother I tried to stop the crying. We feed, we change diapers, we rock, we soothe, we love. All to make sure our children are happy and not crying.
Now I realize that while my intentions were good, it was completely the wrong thing to say and do. She was upset for many reasons, and like some wise person said in a movie I watched recently, “emotions need to be felt”. I should have let her feel and express her emotions, even if they made me feel uncomfortable. She wasn’t even really upset about her dad; she was more upset over the sale of her grandmother’s house and the fact that her grandmother had been ill. But I didn’t know that until I gave her a moment to express her emotions.
I am thankful for that lesson because when my mother-in-law passed away this month I was better prepared to handle the experience with my daughter. When she cried, I didn’t tell her to stop or that everything was going to be okay. I told her that I knew how hard and sad it was, and I held her when she needed holding, and I let her cry. I let her have her 90 seconds (and more) knowing that our feelings and emotions are passing, they do not define us. Knowing that she would be happy again after letting the loop run its course. And sure enough, a few minutes later she was laughing through her tears at some funny memory of her grandmother. Emotions need to be felt and expressed.
Thank you Joyce, we are still learning from you!