Comparing our thought process to that of a monkey may feel a little insulting at first. We like to think that we can easily keep our thoughts under control, but the truth is that the comparison to a monkey is actually incredibly relevant.
Monkeys, as seen in a zoo or as depicted in movies, are portrayed as constantly chattering; a noise that represents what often goes on in our minds. In Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind, Jennifer Shannon offers an approach to anxious thoughts that invite us to be more accepting of our anxiety, rather than working to make it go away.
Instead of getting into the core causes of anxiety and going into the past to determine why we experience anxiety, Shannon encourages readers to instead focus on the response to what’s happening. It’s a very different approach.
Anxiety can truly be debilitating and so the desire to make it “go away” sounds appealing, but too much emphasis on getting rid of anxiety can keep people from moving forward in life. Trying to tame the monkey mind can result in a cycle of anxiety that leads one to dwelling on decisions already made, rehashing old concerns or becoming upset about things that can’t be changed. The goal of Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind is to teach people how to think and act in situations where the monkey mind is taking over.
It’s common to make attempts to avoid the feeling of anxiety through coping and safety strategies. These strategies provide a temporary reprieve, but that behavior – regardless of how maladaptive it may be – will continue to be repeated because it provided temporary relief. Avoidance or distraction prevent anxious feelings in the short term, but do not offer opportunities for new experiences because there is too much fear in taking a risk into the unknown.
Rather than attempting to flee the anxiety, Shannon writes that readers should instead walk into it with an expansive strategy that allows for overriding the experience of anxiety rather than using the short-term strategies to reduce. Expansive strategies may include making a declaration that you are choosing to live with uncertainty, or recognizing the value of living in the moment, whatever that may bring. It may entail acknowledging that judgement and criticism may come when a risk is taken, but knowing that this is where we find opportunities for growth. Whatever expansive mindset we adapt, as we practice it, the better able we are to handle all situations.
This does not deny the significance of negative feelings – they are part of life and are an indicator that something is not working well, or perhaps that we need change in a particular area. As we allow ourselves to experience negative feelings, we learn that we truly can handle them and anxiety loses its power to dictate our actions.
Shannon offers a problem-solving exercise in which rather than procrastination, people can choose to power through with a plan: identify a problem; identify four possible actions; review the short and long-term consequences of each possible action; choose one and do it and then see how it works. Simple and concrete, it is an action to work through the anxiety rather than succumbing to it. Trying not to think about the threat will only confirm it, so action is needed.
Quieting a monkey mind isn’t something that happens overnight. It requires practice and it’s helpful to start with low-risk areas. It’s important to honor effort and take credit for working with an expansive mindset, because the only thing we can control is our behavior.
Shannon’s book is written for the lay reader and is easy to understand. I appreciate that she starts the book sharing her own experience with anxiety. It gives her credibility to write as someone who’s experienced anxiety, as well as someone who treats clients as a therapist.
Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind: How to Stop the Cycle of Anxiety, Fear and Worry
Jennifer Shannon, LMFT
Paperback, 200 pages