The monkey mind refers to the amygdala. Everything we see, touch, hear, taste and smell passes through the amygdala, like travelers passing through airport security getting screened for potential threat. This part of the brain is primitive, instinctual and reactive, much like a monkey. Anxiety is not a monster needing to be conquered, but a scared little critter, loyal and hardworking dedicated to our safety.
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.
Save the Date: June 24, 2017!
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.
Pre-register and Receive 10% off the event book when you RSVP here (plus another 10% for Rewards Cards holders). Please note, there is no reserved seating.
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.
Many Americans are experiencing a higher level of worrying since the presidential election. Our country is in midst of a big transition and the stakes are high. We don’t know what will happen and uncertainty is worrisome for many.
As an anxiety disorder therapist, I’ve worked with many people who worry. Can I apply what works with chronic worriers to political anxiety?
Whatever the cause of your worry or level of intensity, the same part of our brains sets worry in motion. The limbic emotional brain perceives threats and alerts us to them. Because it is primitive, instinctual, and totally focused on survival, I call it the monkey mind.
When we experience uncertainty about something we care about, our health care for example, the monkey mind registers this as a threat. The monkey’s mantra is, what you don’t know can kill you. Anxiety is the monkey’s call to action. You’re in danger, do something!
So what do we do? We may try to vent our emotions by demonizing and name calling. We may check our preferred news feeds obsessively, looking for evidence that we are right. We may avoid listening to views not our own, or even avoid interacting with others who have different political beliefs all together. And of course, we worry. We lay awake at night with the what if’s scrolling across our brains.
These reactions to uncertainty don’t stop our worrying and they don’t address perceived threats. Rather than reacting to political uncertainty, how can we respond to it? Working with my clients I’ve developed a terrific protocol to help. I call it the 5 Step Action Plan.
Step 1. Identify the problem clearly. Instead of saying, Everything could fall apart, you might say, I am worried about losing my health care.
Step 2. Brain storm four different actions you can take. For example:
- Educate yourself about policies related to health care.
- Write letters to public officials stating your concern.
- Volunteer at or donate to an organization that supports healthcare for all.
- Move to another country. (Remember, you are brainstorming. Each idea does not have to be realistic.)
Step 3. Evaluate each action. Think of the short and long term consequence of each one.
Step 4. Pick one or more of the actions, and act.
Step 5. Look at the results. What are the positive and negative consequences of the actions you took? Are there other actions to take? Pat yourself on the back for doing something!
When we take responsible action, it helps reduce feeling overwhelmed and helpless. The monkey mind gets the message that, I am aware of the threat and I am handling it, and our anxiety is reduced. It does not mean that the problem is solved, but that we are constructively involved in doing something about it.
If you have taken these steps and are still experiencing unproductive anxiety and worry, stay tuned for my next newsletter where I will introduce a powerful tool of relaxing into discomfort. Until then remember, when the monkey calls, respond, don’t react.