On the Sunday evening before the wildfires struck my husband and I were returning later than planned from a weekend in Tahoe with friends, so I called the kennel that was boarding him and arranged for Mojo, our beloved eleven-year-old Jack Russell mix, to stay another night. When we made our escape at 2am the following morning, Mojo wasn’t on our minds. He was safe with the dog boarder, or so we thought.
At 4am my cell phone rang. It was the dog boarders. Their area was called to evacuate also, and someone in the neighborhood, thinking the dogs were in danger, broke in and turned all the dogs loose—dozens of them— before the boarders could evacuate them. They were out rounding them up, but so far, Mojo could not be found.
If you are a dog owner you know how I felt. Mojo was more than a part of our family. When our three children left home, little ten-pound Mojo somehow filled our empty nest. Part lap dog, part yapping mail truck chaser, Mojo was exactly what his name stands for, a magic charm, a talisman, a hairy little bag of spirit that in a real sense, hung around our necks over our hearts. It was another shock on top of our shock. Doug was catching a little sleep—one of his superpowers, even in a crisis. What should I do? I thought. What can I do?
Every day in my private practice I help people learn to deal with the uncertainty of life. When the monkey mind sounds the alarm that something is wrong, our natural response is to do something to fix it. It’s our first response to fear and anxiety. Do something, do anything to gain control and make the feeling go away. When it’s not a false alarm, and what we hold dear is in real danger, the urge to act is overwhelming. But when the situation is beyond our direct control, the question I ask my clients is, which is the better skill to practice right now— trying to control what is uncontrollable, or trying to stay in the moment tolerating uncertainty and negative emotions?
I knew the answer to this question. The situation was beyond my direct control. I couldn’t drive into an evacuated zone in the dark and cruise the streets looking for my dog. I was helpless. The only thing I could do was practice what I preach, tolerating uncertainty. I knew I may never see Mojo again. But if that turned out to be the case, I’d have a chance to practice flexibility and resilience.
Things got worse. After the fire swept our condo complex it roared down the hill, jumped highway 101, and attacked Coffey Park, a dense suburban area where the dog boarders were located. As the news trickled in, it became obvious just how much human life was threatened. Uncertainty was the new normal for everyone. On Tuesday morning my daughter Rose went to work posting photos of Mojo on Facebook and calling all the animal shelters, but considering the destruction we feared the worst.
Then, 36 hours after the call from the dog boarder, I received another call. “Hello, is this Jennifer Shannon? I found your dog.” Oh joy! A young man and his girlfriend—dog owners/lovers themselves—spotted Mojo wandering the street and tried to pick him up. But Mojo was so traumatized he was running away from everyone and everything. This wonderful man chased Mojo for blocks, finally fishing him out of a swimming pool, getting bit for his troubles in the process. When I peered into the back seat of their car, little Mo looked back with wide, vacant eyes. He didn’t even recognize me.
There’s more to this story, of course. The vet who bandaged his bloody paws and didn’t charge for it. The folks who volunteered to foster Mojo until we found a place where we could keep him. There is so much love in the world in times of crisis. That’s one thing I can be certain about, even when I’m uncertain about everything else.
As a therapist and author who specializes in stress and anxiety, and has lost my home in the Santa Rosa fire, I am writing this blog to remind myself of the powerful tools I use in my practice with my clients. If It helps others to deal with their own challenges, nothing would please me more.
2 am Monday morning. I am awakened by the sound of my husband’s cell phone ringing. He doesn’t answer it and I reach for the light. The electricity is off. My throat feels raw and the air is thick with smoke. I leap out of bed shouting for Doug to wake up and my cell is ringing now. I answer it with one hand as I pull on pants with the other. Our friend Steve shouts in my ear, “Get out of there, right away!” “We are!” I answer.
Using cell phones as flashlights, Doug and I race through the dark house grabbing our laptops and photo albums. In the street outside a bullhorn voice bares, “Evacuate Now!” We throw what we’ve grabbed into the trunk of the car and as Doug pushes the garage door open, we see our neighbors loading into their cars, shadows in the white fog of headlights. The air is hot as a summer’s day and through the trees I see a glowing crimson. As I maneuver the car through the street, I grip the steering wheel tight, holding on to something solid as behind me, so much of what I love slips away.
Twenty minutes later I turn the key in the lock of my mother’s studio apartment in Sebastopol, 15 miles away from Santa Rosa CA. We wake her gently and flip on the TV in her bedroom. At 85 years-old, my mother is mildly cognitively impaired, but she is calm as we watch the news, trying to understand what happened. I feel like I’m dreaming yet I’m hyper alert and awake. We are alive, I think. It was a full-blown fight-freeze-flight situation and I responded. Thank you, monkey mind!
For the rest of the night and all morning my mind races, reliving our escape over and over. Monday afternoon, almost 24 hours exactly after the call that woke us, I receive a call from a trusted neighbor confirming that our home is burnt to the ground. It was as I expected. I felt numb. That night I collapse into a long deep sleep.
The next morning some friends call about a possible rental space and my husband and I go to see it. It is so rough with just a wood stove for heat. It would need much work, and it could never be home to me. That’s when the impact of what had happened hits. I am by nature a homebody and I loved my home. I need a place where I can recharge and regenerate. The simple comfort of my soft sheets to crawl into, my husband and dog to cuddle up with, is one of the greatest pleasures I have. My kitchen, where I love to cook and listen to music. My desk overlooking the Santa Rosa valley. It’s all gone! Our friends are talking to me about the place and about the fire but I can’t track what they are saying. I quietly tell Doug, “I need to go.”
In my work I teach my clients to welcome anxiety and other negative emotions, that they are natural expressions of the limbic brain that is devoted to our safety and survival, what I like to call the monkey mind. Now, here was the sorrow of loss, square in my path.
Back at my mother’s studio I sat on the couch next to her as she knitted. My body began to shake and I curled into her lap. My heart ached in the most literal sense of the word. “Put your hand on the back of my heart,” I said. I felt the warmth of her hand and let in penetrate. “I don’t have a home, I love my home,” I sobbed.
I cried for half an hour in my mother’s arms. I cried until I was dry and exhausted. I felt calm. My mind was empty. I was floating in the quiet trough until the next wave hit.
As a therapist and author who specializes in stress and anxiety, and has lost my home in the Santa Rosa fire, I am writing this blog to remind myself of the powerful tools I use in my practice with my clients. If It helps others to deal with their own challenges, nothing would please me more.
The holidays are just around the corner. How can we prepare in a way that will decrease your stress, not add to it?
I remember one year when my children were young, I got up at 4am to go to a Black Friday sale. I stood in line for hours and ended up buying toys I never would have bought otherwise. I felt I would be missing out on a deal if I didn’t. And after all, the more gifts under the tree, the merrier my family would be, right?
For many of us, rather than holidays being a time of fun, connection and spirituality, they are a time of stress, anxiety and depression. As I wrote in Don’t Feed The Monkey Mind, there are two core fears or primordial threats we all share in common. The first is loss of life or safety and security in the form of finances, food and shelter. Around the holidays especially, we feel fearful of not having enough, whether it is money for gifts, a trip, or holiday decorations.
Our number two core fear is the loss of social status, belonging and respect from others. What better time of year than this to compare ourselves to others who may have more money, better gifts, more family connections, even cuter holiday cookies!
When our core fears are activated, we feel anxious, jealous, inadequate. These feelings are not comfortable, and we want to get rid of them so we try harder to accumulate and do more. Our commercial culture goads us on, reinforcing the monkey mindset that to be more secure, connected and happy, we must act, leading to an endless cycle of stress, frantic activity and more stress. This is what I call “feeding the monkey”.
Instead of letting the monkey mind lead us forward into the holidays, why not use this season as an opportunity to practice our true personal values? Which of these values are ones that are important to you around the holidays?
LOVE FUN HUMOR FLEXIBILITY CONNECTION AUTHENTICITY ACCEPTANCE
COMPASSION PEACE PRESENCE GROWTH RESILIENCE SPIRITUALITY KINDNESS
We can plan the holidays in a way that honors the values that are truly important to us, not the fearful monkey mindset our culture encourages. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, working harder and buying more, the holidays can be a time to break from routine, to reflect and to be present with those we care about, including ourselves.
Do You Feel Guilty When You Take Care of Yourself?
Nancy, my 38-year-old client, is a caring, sensitive person who has been working on setting limits with others and taking care of herself. The therapy homework she’d committed to during our previous session was to do something by herself, for herself over the weekend, and she had chosen to take a drive to the beach solo. As our session began Nancy said, “Well, I did my homework…kind of.” She told me how when she let her husband know her plan he got upset, saying that he’d been looking forward to spending time with her that day. After some half-hearted resistance, Nancy gave in and the duo took a drive to the beach, even though it wasn’t what Nancy intended or wanted to do.
During our session Nancy expressed anger at her husband for not being more supportive of her, as well as anger at herself for going along with something that she did not want to do. She knew this fit a pattern of not standing up for herself with her husband as well as others.
Can you relate to this situation? I know I can. I remember as a teen having a terrible time telling a boy that I did not want to go out with him because I was afraid of hurting his feelings. As an adult, I have often over committed myself because I don’t want to let people down. And in my relationships, I can be so hypersensitive to other people’s feelings that it can be a difficult to say what I want. Why is it so challenging for us to set limits, give opinions, and express ourselves honestly, and so much easier to respond to what others want from us?
Being responsible for others’ needs is an adaptive behavior, part of the social glue that kept our ancestors acting together as a tribe. Shared responsibility is what we do to survive, and when we all share within the limits of healthy personal boundaries, it works. But some of us take too much responsibility for other people’s feelings, and not enough responsibility for ourselves.
When I asked Nancy how responsible she felt for disappointing her husband when she said she wanted to go to the beach alone, she said 100%. After all, she explained, he would not have been upset at all if she had suggested they go together, so it was clearly her fault. This is a common misconception, that if we do something that triggers someone else—brings up bad feelings for them—then we are in the wrong. To help Nancy see this differently we made a Responsibility Pie.
I asked her to make a list of all the other reasons that might have contributed to her husband being upset that did not have to do directly with her. We illustrated each reason as a piece of a pie that represented her husband’s feelings, giving each a percentage of how much it might have contributed to his disappointment. Here is what we came up with:
He had a stressful week at work and was feeling depressed. 25%
He does not like to be alone. 50%
He does not have interests or hobbies that occupy him. 20%
All together these reasons, which her husband was certainly responsible for, equaled 95% of the pie, but we still hadn’t put in the part that Nancy was supposedly responsible for! Nancy could plainly see that she was not 100% responsible for her husband’s being upset.
Next time you find yourself feeling guilty about someone else’s pain, try the Responsibility Pie exercise. It’s a great tool that can help give us perspective, and the courage to take responsibility for what we are most responsible for, ourselves!
I am working with a client who came in complaining about difficulty deciding things. Whether choosing a career path or just buying a pair of shoes, unless she was 100% certain she was making the right decision, she delayed, conducting endless research, revisiting her pros and cons list, seeking reassurance from others, and changing her mind repeatedly. I recognized these behaviors right away as safety strategies. As long as she employed them, she was safe from the threat of deciding something she was uncertain about.
Using safety strategies to avoid uncertainty fuels a cycle of anxiety that tends to get worse over time. Whenever a decision is delayed due to uncertainty we reinforce the mindset that certainty is indeed possible, training the brain to categorize future decision-making situations as threats to our safety. Over time, we have less and less tolerance for uncertainty, and higher levels of anxiety when the need to make a decision arises. That’s why I call these strategies feeding the monkey mind.
In order to interrupt this cycle my client would have to begin to think more expansively around decisions, accepting the inherent uncertainty of life. Together we brainstormed for an alternative belief to counter her need-to-be-certain mindset. Here is what we came up with:
I must be certain that I am making the right decision or else I will be miserable forever.
It is more important to practice flexibility and learn to cope with whatever decision I make than to be certain of my decision.
Of course, her new belief wouldn’t last long if she kept up her safety behaviors. Together we made a list of new behaviors that would give her the opportunity to practice tolerating uncertainty.
Research options endlessly
Constantly seek reassurance
Repeatedly change my mind
Restrict time weighing pros/cons
Refrain from asking others’ opinions
Make a decision and stick with it
Over time, using expansive behaviors will increase our tolerance of uncertainty and create less anxiety when making choices. And as a bonus, expansive strategies give us more resilience when a decision doesn’t work out well.
I was recently asked to do a presentation during my lunch break to a group of mental health professionals. I like to take my lunch breaks to eat, rest, maybe enjoy a cup of coffee. But I said “yes”. Afterwards I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Why did I do that?
Those of us who have a hard time saying “no” are usually nice, responsible people who care about the feelings of others and want to do the right thing. But is our reluctance to say “no” always based on compassion and consideration?. If you are someone who has a problem saying “no” it may be based more in fear than compassion. I was afraid that turning my associates down might disappoint them, and that this disappointment might lead to rejection of some kind. The “monkey mind” part of my brain that is constantly on the lookout for my safety was overestimating the threat. If you disappoint others, they might not like you as much or will possibly reject you. Saying “no” could get me kicked out of the tribe!
To avoid the potential loss of love and belonging, many of us go about our lives anticipating—and acting to prevent—other people’s feelings of disappointment. When presented with any request or obligation, our default response is “yes”. This over-responsible mindset has serious consequences. Putting others’ needs before our own leads to stress and burnout. Watching others fail to do their fair share of the work, and feeling compelled to volunteer to fill the void leads to resentment and self-pity. If you don’t stand up for yourself, who will?
If you are ready to make a change and start to say “no” when you need to, great! I have 8 simple steps to help you get there.
Step 1: Think up a situation that you need practice saying “no” to. Don’t pick a situation that’s too difficult. For example, I had a client whose work, school, and family responsibilities were getting in the way of her personal self-care, like going to the gym and reading. She decided that to stop agreeing to join committees at her children’s school would be a better place to begin her saying “no” practice than to stop volunteering to help solve the various problems of her extended family.
Step 2: Identify the values you would be cultivating by saying “no”. Remember that safety and security are overvalued by the monkey mind, and that this is why you have been saying “yes” so often. My client came up with the following values: health, courage, fun/pleasure, responsibility (to herself), and compassion (for herself). For a list of values click here.
Step 3: Identify the monkey mindset that is getting activated. This is what my client came up with: I am responsible for other peoples’ feelings. If I set a limit that upsets someone, it is my fault. If I upset someone I may be abandoned and alone. For a list of over-responsible assumptions, click here.
Step 4: Identify an expansive mindset to counter your monkey mindset. My client came up with: It is not my responsibility to keep people happy at the expense of expressing myself. Saying no and setting limits is part of good self-care. If I am abandoned by someone, I need to learn to cope with this and not live in fear of it happening. Remember, you don’t need to believe it at this point, but it does need to sound true to you. Click here for a list of possibilities.
Step 5: Identify your Safety Strategies. These are the things you do to keep the worst from happening—in my client’s case, keeping people from feeling angry or abandoning her. Her standard safety behaviors were: Say “yes” before I even think; Over explain why I can’t do it. Make up an excuse or even lie about why I can’t do it.
Step 6: Identify your Expansive Strategies. These are usually the opposite of your safety strategies. My client came up with: Say “Let me think about this and get back to you.” Say “no” without over explaining or making a huge excuse. It can be very useful to role play saying “no” using your new expansive strategies with a supportive friend or family member.
Step 7: Identify —and accept—the emotions your new strategy brings up. Whenever you behave in a way that challenges the monkey mind’s agenda of safety and security, you are going to be hit with negative emotions. They are a call to action, Something is wrong, do something!
Expect these feelings and remind yourself that they are necessary for you to grow in your desired direction of better self-care. Using the welcoming practice is a powerful tool to help you to tolerate them.
Step 8: Reward yourself! This is a very important step so please don’t leave it out. Whether or not you actually disappoint others when you say “no”, the negative emotions and scary rejection scenarios in your head can feel like punishment. To counter this, review your expansive mindsets and strategies, steps 4 and 6, and check off the ones you tried. Then pat yourself on the back. Saying “no” is hard work—and crucial work—to make a stronger, healthier and ultimately happier you!
We’ve all witnessed the classic supermarket scene: frazzled parent grabs a treat off the shelf to quiet a tantruming 3-year-old. I’ve been there myself. The reason we do this is, it works. The child quiets down and everyone gets some relief from those unpleasant ear piercing screams. But as most of us know, rewarding a child for a tantrum guarantees more tantrums in the future. Our short-term gain will bring long-term pain.
This is exactly what happens when we get anxious. Imagine you are texting a loved one to make sure they arrived to their destination safely. If they do not respond to your text, your monkey mind is activated. It sounds the anxiety alarm, Something is wrong! Do something! So you send another text. Or perhaps you call instead.
Continuously calling and texting to verify the safety of our loved ones is a great example of what I call feeding the monkey. It seems innocent enough. Your cell phone is so simple to dial. But this behavior is just like giving a tantruming child a treat.
When we respond to the monkey mind’s perception of threat by doing something to neutralize the anxiety it causes, we are quite literally agreeing with the monkey mind and rewarding it for sending us anxiety. By picking up the cell phone again we are sending it the message that we cannot handle the anxiety of not knowing.
When our loved one finally responds, we feel instant relief, further reinforcing the assumption of the monkey mindset that 100% certainty is necessary. Just as the child in the supermarket learned that Because I screamed and cried, I got a treat, your monkey learns that Because I sounded the anxiety alarm, your loved ones are safe.
Whether we are quieting a child with a treat, or quieting the monkey mind by texting a loved one, the result is the same: short-term gain, long-term pain.
As many parents learn, if you can tolerate the child’s tantrum without reacting to it, the child will eventually quiet down and the tantrums will decrease. This works because the child learns 1) that she cannot dictate your behavior, and 2) she can self-regulate herself. The lesson you want to teach your monkey mind in situations where loved ones are out of sight is 1) it cannot dictate your behavior and 2) it can self-regulate.
Neither screaming children nor the monkey mind can be reasoned with. The only teaching tool we have is our behavior. If we want to tame the monkey mind and invest in less anxiety in the future, we need to stop feeding it and learn to tolerate the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. In this example, when you don’t hear back from someone, instead or attempting to neutralize the anxiety by texting or calling again, welcome it. The message you are sending is I can handle not knowing. Although it will be uncomfortable, the truth is, you can handle not knowing. With continued practice, I guarantee you a tamer and less reactive monkey mind. Short-term pain, long-term gain.
Event date: Saturday, June 24, 2017 – 7:00pm Featured Book:Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind: How to Stop the Cycle of Anxiety, Fear, and Worry
Santa Rosa – In this unique book, a local author and licensed psychotherapist offers a cognitive behavioral therapy-based approach to help readers stop anxious thoughts from taking over, using proven-effective CBT, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness techniques (as well as fun illustrations). By following the exercises in this book, you’ll learn to identify your own anxious thoughts, question those thoughts, and uncover the core fears at play.
I am currently working with a woman who is going through chemotherapy. During one session, she told me how, when confronted with making a grocery list that morning, she had burst into tears. She was ashamed for being so easily overwhelmed with her emotions. She said, “I’m acting like a crybaby.”
I didn’t think my client wasn’t being a crybaby at all. She wasn’t complaining about her condition. She was simply crying like a baby. And there’s a big difference.
When we are in crisis or fatigued, even the littlest things can overwhelm us with negative emotions like frustration, isolation, fear and helplessness. We often struggle to get rid of these feelings, as if they represented a threat to our survival. “Why is this happening to me?,” we ask. “No one understands what I am going through. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
Complaining is one way we resist the negative emotions associated with the alarms of the monkey mind. Our hearts are closed to feeling this pain. Unfortunately, complaints do nothing to improve our situation, and worse, they send the wrong message back to the monkey mind. That message is, I can’t handle this.
Instead of treating negative feelings as something to be complained about, it is far more useful to accept them as necessary. Like the sun overhead and the clouds passing by, negative emotions are beyond our direct control. All we can do is allow them to pass through our lives. Disruptive and painful as they may be, we can choose to make room for them and yes, to express them. Depending on how
deep the pain, that can mean letting the tears flow—just like a baby.
From the first moments of birth, our bodies and minds are perfectly capable of expressing negative emotions in a spontaneous and healthy way. When we welcome our negative feelings, instead of complaining about them, we can process them, from the beginning all the way through to the end. A crying baby can sound like a thunderstorm. But eventually the sun comes out.
Of course, it takes courage to accept negative emotions and allow ourselves to feel them without question or complaint. But your courage will be rewarded with increased resilience to all the inevitable pain in life.
And when we welcome uncomfortable feelings, we are sending a much more productive and powerful message to our monkey mind. We are saying, I can handle this. This message calms down that part of our brain, and with continued repetition, fosters more peace or equanimity in our lives.
Finally, and most importantly, when we actively open our hearts to pain and sorrow we widen its doors for all emotions, including joy and pleasure. We are expanding our capacity to feel and stay present in the moment.
The next time you feel sad, or scared or frustrated, if you notice yourself slipping into that well-worn, but ineffective habit of complaint, take a moment to stop and acknowledge what you are feeling. Can you welcome it instead? Open the palms of your hands as a physical reminder that you are keeping your heart open, and allow the feelings to flow through you without any resistance. Breathe deeply, making plenty of space for whatever sensations emerge. You don’t need to change or control anything. Trust that what you are feeling is natural and necessary.
And if you are so moved, let the tears flow. Go ahead. Cry like a baby.
In my last newsletter, I introduced a 5 step action plan to help us to respond—rather that react—to a threat. But what can you do about the continued anxiety you feel even though you have a plan in place?
While taking thoughtful action helps reduce fear and worry, it does not always solve the problem. Whatever your concern is, whether a changing political environment, your health, finances, or your relationships, 100% certainty is impossible.
Because the world is in constant flux, the limbic brain that perceives threats and alerts us to them cannot rest. It constantly scans the horizon, pressing the anxiety button when it perceives an uncertain outcome. This monkey mind is not being a pest on purpose, it is only doing its job— trying to keep you safe.
When problems do not resolve despite our best efforts we have a tendency to think that if we worry hard enough, we can solve it, that with enough concentration we can create certainty and feel the peace and security we crave. But since 100% certainty is impossible, there is no end to our worries. This can interfere with being productive at work, play, or when you are trying to sleep.
Your natural reaction may be to distract yourself from worry and anxiety. With your smart phones and other media devices, temporary relief is only a click away. You may also try to numb yourself with alcohol or drugs. These attempts to ward off anxiety send the wrong message to the monkey mind. The message is, I can’t handle this.
As an alternative, here is a powerful exercise that will send a better message. It will cultivate flexibility, resilience and presence. And with enough practice, it will quiet the monkey mind. I call this exercise the Welcoming Breath.
Directions for the Welcoming Breath
Scan your body for tension or discomfort. Common areas we hold tension are the jaws, shoulders, and stomach.
As you inhale, imagine you are breathing in to the area of discomfort. Rather than trying to get rid of it, make room and space for it. The goal is to soften and surrender to whatever you are feeling in this moment.
When you exhale, imagine yourself letting go of trying to fix, analyze or problem solve.
Continue to do this for 5-10 minutes.
All emotions have a beginning, middle and an end. When we learn to relax into discomfort we are able to process it. When we respond to anxiety by welcoming it rather than reacting to it, we calm the monkey mind. We send a message that says, I got this one.
With practice, it learns not to press the panic button every time you are reminded of a potential threat. Your anxiety decreases. In the welcoming state, we are in a much better position to take wise, thoughtful and effective action.
You can listen to a guided practice here or download it by clicking here.