How to retrain your mind to reduce stress and anxiety
Why is it that we so often feel at the mercy of our thoughts? Why do our fears and anxieties seem to lead us rather than the more rational part of our mind? How do repeating patterns of negative thinking and behaviours start and how can we change this? Here is how you can regain control and tame your monkey mind, as explained from the Inner Being perspective.
We each have an Inner Being – it’s our own non-physical core self that is our consciousness. It provides the life force energy for the duration of our lives. It’s our core spiritual self that we transition back into when we die.
What is the Monkey Mind?
Buddhists, mindfulness experts and therapists often use the term monkey mind to describe the part of the brain that contains the amygdala, the limbic system*. It’s the biggest part of the brain and has a very important role in instinctive responses. It is vital to our physical survival as it’s responsible for assessing all potential threats rapidly. It then prompts us to act quickly where necessary, using the flight and flight responses and releasing hormones such as adrenalin.
The human mind essentially has 2 ‘parts’, the thinking part, that is more connected to the Inner Being, and the monkey part which is instinctive and has the stronger genetic influence. The monkey mind constantly evolves and adapts slightly from each new experience. The two work together but don’t always agree. The thinking part works slowly. The monkey mind operates quickly and instinctively because it’s responsible for our survival.
Is the Monkey Mind the same as ego?
It is not the same. The ego is the awareness of the ‘I am me’. It’s the sense of personal identity – the awareness of self, relating to gender, cultural background, belief systems. It’s the image of self in relation to our own mental model of the world, which we each create based on past experiences and emotions.
How does the Monkey Mind work?
All input from our 5 senses will always go straight to the monkey part (this is our physiology and will never change). There it is processed very quickly. Most of it is ignored because it is deemed to be unimportant e.g. your eyes see an aisle full of washing powder but straight away you are aware of the pack that you want, and you haven’t really noticed the 50 others on the shelves.
So the monkey mind filters all the information it receives from our surroundings. First it assesses whether there is any imminent danger to us requiring the fight and flight response. Then it passes what it deems most important to the thinking part of the brain for wider consideration. This is an important function, otherwise we would be overwhelmed by the millions of bits of information our brain is receiving every minute from the environment around us. This prevents us from being overloaded with thoughts. For example, the monkey mind is fully aware of how your right foot is currently feeling in your shoe. But it wouldn’t come to your conscious awareness unless there was a problem, eg if you trod on a nail.
Anxious Monkey Mind
However, this filtering by the monkey mind can also lead to a very subjective interpretation of situations, depending on whether that particular monkey has learned to be overly fearful. As there is a genetic aspect, some people may naturally have a more fearful monkey mind than others. Traumatic experiences in early life can also lead to an anxious fearful monkey. However it is still possible to retrain that overly fearful response. In conditions such as autism or obsessive compulsive disorder, the monkey mind is particularly fearful and anxious, and normal everyday situations can trigger the fight or flight response.
The monkey part adapts slightly from each new experience. So if a person has experienced very stressful or traumatic events, afterwards the monkey mind may become over-active and constantly looking for causes for alarm, which leads to stress and anxiety. It can also become selective in what it passes on to the awareness, giving only potential causes for alarm rather than a more balanced view of the full picture. This can lead the person to focus only on the negatives, rather than also seeing the positives in a situation.
The person then might become fearful and anxious in everyday situations. So then it has trouble telling the difference between a real external threat (like a vicious dog about to attack), or an internal threat like a troubling memory. The fight or flight response is still triggered. With an external threat, it’s easy to see when the threat has passed. With a troubling thought, however, the monkey mind never quite knows when it can let go. So the person can get stuck in a pattern of negative thinking where the monkey is bringing up similar memories from the past and also projecting it onto the future as a worry. But it’s possible to retrain the monkey mind to react differently, as we explain below.
Giving the Monkey Mind too much control
How the thinking part of the brain chooses to respond to the potential ‘causes for alarm’ that the monkey mind brings to its attention is also a key factor. There is a choice whether respond with alarm, or with a more balanced view.
“Feelings are much like waves – we can’t stop them coming but we can choose which ones to surf” – Jonatan Martensson
People with a limited connection to their Inner Being almost always act predominantly from the monkey part. For example, they feel threatened and make aggressive comments when someone ignores them. Their Inner Being, on the other hand, would want them to consider the wider context. ‘Maybe that person is having a bad day or just hasn’t noticed me – either way it’s not my problem so I don’t need to react negatively or even feel negative about this, I’m quite happy for them to choose to notice me or not’.
When we develop a bigger, stronger connection to the Inner Being we have a better balance of judgement – those with a strong connection are usually positive and not fearful because they are able to comfort their own monkey mind regularly. Therefore their monkey seldom feels threatened and doesn’t ‘kick off’.
“The soul always knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind.” – Caroline Myss
Meditation is an excellent way to silence the mind and expand the connection to your Inner Being. Read more about how in the Benefits of Meditation.
How can we tame the Monkey Mind?
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
When you are feeling stressed and anxious and stuck on negative thinking patterns, the quickest and easiest way to break the monkey’s hold is to choose instead to think of something, or do something, that makes you happy. Think of something funny that always brings a smile, or put on your favourite song and sing at the top of your voice. Do anything that makes you feel good.
If you’re unable to do it in that moment – singing in a stressful business meeting might not go down well – think of something you love. Savour the taste of a delicious cake you’ve eaten. Taste the cake as if you’re eating it now. Remember a time you were sitting on a beach feeling content and relaxed. But the key thing is to feel it as if it’s in the NOW. And really FEELING it rather than just thinking of it, strengthens the positive emotion. It starts to make the monkey feel more comfortable. Learn more techniques in: Improve your Emotional Set Point.
Give the Monkey a ‘banana’
It helps to think of this part of the mind as a monkey that’s learned to squawk at bit too often. And the best way to stop it squawking is to ‘give it a banana’ by giving it something good/funny/happy to think about and feel instead. (Or in the case of the baboon in the header photo – an orange!) Laughter is the quickest and most effective way to boost your mood, so find something to laugh about. It’s physically impossible to feel anxious when you’re laughing. Then you start to feel more in control because you now have techniques to self-soothe whenever you’re feeling anxious.
With repeated use of this technique, the monkey gradually gets more relaxed and stops being constantly on alert. He likes cake/banana, he gets happy. He can sleep when there is no real threat to your survival. The monkey starts to realise that the look on someone else’s face really has nothing to do with you. He starts to worry less. You’re retraining him to focus more on the positives around you than the negatives. Read more about how to Free yourself from negative thinking.
Which thoughts come from the Inner Being?
The emotion of the Inner Being is mostly positive and happy, whereas the emotion from the monkey is often negative. The Inner Being is the inner voice that gives us inspiration. It’s the source of the thoughts that arise spontaneously, when you are reading a book for example. When you are focused on an activity which occupies the monkey mind, such as driving or showering, inspirational thoughts may often come. This is because they Inner Being can connect more fully when the monkey is occupied with something. Learn more about Inner Beings.
To tell whether what you are feeling is coming from your monkey mind or your Inner Being, use your gut feelings. If what you are thinking of, or doing, doesn’t make you happy, there is a gap between where you currently are and where your Inner Being is. Like they say on the Underground – MIND THE GAP. If there is a gap, it’s not coming from your Inner Being. Feeling the gap is a good barometer to point out to you when you need to change your thinking. Change what you’re focusing on to things that make you happier.
Gratitude and appreciation
An excellent way to make your monkey’s focus more positive is to consciously appreciate more. Notice and be grateful for all the good things around you, however small. What’s more, the emotion of gratitude actually releases feelgood hormones in your body – seratonin and dopamine. So you start to feel better yourself.
Just before you fall asleep is a particularly important time to consciously set your mood. Whatever emotions you are bathed in as you go into sleep will stay with you through the night. So as you are falling asleep each night, consciously bring to mind 5 things that have happened that day that have made you happy or you have liked. However small they may be to begin with, it’s an important step back to positive thinking. Do it regularly and soon you will be thinking of 10 things that day that you have liked. When you do it before sleeping, it means you go into sleep feeling that happy vibration.
Furthermore, the dopamine and seratonin released by the gratitude combines with the melatonin in your brain that’s responsible for triggering sleep, so you go to sleep more quickly and in a more positive state of mind.
When you have become practised at this you will notice that you are feeling happier most of the time. Your mood will less often be swayed into negativity by things that you dislike. It usually takes daily practice for more than a month to change the negative habits of a lifetime, so be patient. Read more about how to Change your negatives to positives.
How easy is it to retrain the Monkey Mind?
The equation is simple – the more time you spend thinking of and feeling, or doing things you like, the quicker your monkey will start to relax and stop squawking. It will always be doing its primary job of keeping you safe, but it won’t hold you in a state of perpetual anxiety where you are plagued by negative thinking. If you’ve had many years with a stressed, over-anxious monkey in the driving seat, it may take a while to get him comfortable and happy again. But the more you do this, the easier it becomes. You develop a muscle for ‘flipping the script’ that the monkey is trying to give you. Consciously choosing happier thoughts starts to become second nature.
As you keep practising this, the monkey gradually gets more comfortable. Each time you choose a happy, positive thought over a fearful, negative one, the Inner Being begins to have a slightly bigger part of your head and your thinking. When you are able to receive more positive influence from your Inner Being, happiness starts to be your natural default state. Read more ways to get happy: Improve your Emotional Set Point
*The Limbic system includes many components including: Cingulate gyrus – cognitive functions and attention and autonomic functions eg regulating heart rate, blood pressure; Amygdala – fear, flight or fight response; Hippocampus – memory; Orbitofrontal cortex – decision making; Hypothalamus – metabolic processes eg body temperature, sleep, hunger
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