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.
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.