Intense emotions can easily overwhelm our senses and have a powerful impact on our behavior. If we’re angry with a coworker, we might feel a strong urge to argue with them in front of the entire team. If we’re feeling anxious about a social situation, we might be tempted to avoid it altogether. If we’re experiencing sadness about a date that did not go well, we might feel compelled to obsess about it for days. In other words, intense emotions can — and do — interfere with our ability to effectively navigate the world.
This is why emotion regulation is so important. As a researcher and therapist, I’ve spent over a decade studying how people can better regulate their emotions. We know that some strategies are healthier than others. For example, reframing a stressful situation to focus on its potential upside tends to be healthier than obsessing over every detail that could go wrong.
But learning to utilize these techniques effectively can take a long time (and often the help of a therapist). So today, I want to share a relatively simple tip that can help you gain better control of your emotions: Wait 60 seconds before doing anything.
That’s it; simple as that: Just wait. Hit the pause button. Don’t do anything.
In particular, don’t follow what the emotion is telling you to do: Don’t send that angry text, don’t decline the invitation to present at work, don’t tell your potential date you’re too busy this week, don’t send that passive-aggressive email to your boss. Just don’t.
Try to stay with the emotion — it is, in fact, possible to feel something and not act on it right away. Notice your physical sensations: How’s your breathing? Your heart rate? Your stomach? Are you trembling? Are you freezing? Notice your thoughts: Are you having angry thoughts? Self-critical thoughts? Defeatist thoughts? Obsessive thoughts?
If this is hard to do — which tends to be the case for most people — try setting up a timer. Seriously. When you feel the rush of emotion, take out your phone or watch and start a 60-second countdown. Then notice your body and, later, your thoughts. And everything else about your experience.
By the end of these 60 seconds, more often than not, the intensity of the emotion and its hook over your behavior will have subsided. It might not be gone completely, but it will likely become less central to your experience. The reason is simple: Emotions always come on quickly and immediately begin to decay.
Often, when we feel as if emotions “last forever” it’s because we’re actively prolonging them by fighting them or by having emotions about those emotions. For example, when we feel frustrated that we feel anxious we prolong the anxiety. But when we learn to isolate emotions and stay with them for a brief period of time, we actually shorten their duration. Quite paradoxical, I know. But that’s how it goes.
By the way, if you need more than 60 seconds, that’s perfectly fine. You might find that 2 minutes or 5 minutes might work best. The exact timing doesn’t matter much. What’s critical is that you find what works best for you.
Some call this mindfulness. Others might refer to it as “surfing the emotion.” Either way, the principle remains the same: The more you wait and the more you stay with your emotion, the more in control you eventually are.
As always, these posts are for educational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice. If you — or someone you know — is experiencing mental health problems, please reach out to a professional.