by Heidi Hanna, PhD
Executive Director for The American Institute of Stress, NY Times best selling author, Founder of Beyond Funny
Simple shifts to reduce anxiety and stress.
In our over-stimulating and hyper-connected environment, it’s easy to slip into a state of chronic stress. Overtime, feeling overwhelmed can lead to anxiety that hijacks your attention and keeps you stuck thinking about what you might be missing or where you may be missing the mark. This state of arousal and stress sensitivity has been referred to as the “monkey mind”, because our thoughts and behaviors become driven by the more primitive parts of the brain that govern emotional responses rather than the more human part of the brain that directs focus and attention based on rational, logical, whole-brain thinking. When worry gets in the way of our work, it’s important to find ways to shift away from fear and uncertainty so that we can problem solve more effectively. Here are a few common sense ways to calm down and carry on.
1) Minimize multitasking — we are hardwired to pay close attention to potential threats in our environment, which historically have been determined by cues such as noise, movement, and changes in lighting. Today, our homes and offices often trigger sensitivity with these same cues, and although we work hard to stay focused on the task at hand, our brains fatigue and our attention starts to wander. What’s more, the content of noise that appears to be in the background can make its way into our awareness, even shifting our perception of our day. One study showed that people who watched just 3 minutes of negative news were 27% more likely to rate their day as being negative as well. Tame the monkey mind by turning off unnecessary noise and stimulation whenever possible.
2) Movement — when we worry, our brain wants to help guide us to mobilize to take control of the situation. Instead of fighting or running away, however, we tend to sit and wallow in our worries, which can make us feel stuck, overwhelmed, and out of control. One of the quickest ways to tame the monkey mind and reduce anxiety is to get physical activity. This allows us to utilize stress hormones in a more positive and productive way, triggers the release of endorphins that help us to feel good and boosts our sense of accomplishment. Even when we can’t solve the problem, taking some sort of personal action like a short burst of exercise or just taking a quick walk can tame the monkey mind, reduce stress, and help us think more clearly.
3) Meditation — although it’s challenging at first, slowing down our breathing and quieting the mind is one of the best ways to train the brain to be still. When the monkey mind is active, it can feel impossible to calm it down. You can reduce the chaos by first focusing on how it feels to breathe in and out. Keeping your attention on the physical sensations in your body as your chest expands and contracts. Then, shift your focus to something or someone you feel grateful for. If you mind starts to wander, just notice it and bring it back to your object of gratitude. Like training muscles in the gym and resisting the pull of gravity, notice that it’s challenge and just continue to bring your awareness back over and over again to gratitude, strengthening your ability to stay in the present moment.
4) Mirth — finding something funny is a quick way to shift a busy brain into a more relaxed and creative state. Mirth is the emotional experience of humor; the feeling you get when you notice that something is funny. It could be curious, peculiar, or ironic. And it doesn’t have to make you laugh out loud, although if you do you’ll benefit even more. Humor research has shown that finding something funny decreases stress hormones, improves immune function, strengthens memory, builds resilience, and like meditation is a skill that can be developed over time. The more you intentionally go find something funny, the more likely notice funny things throughout the day. And humor not only calms the monkey mind, it also helps channel that energy in a more productive way by nourishing creativity, collaboration, and innovation through cognitive flexibility. (I have a few of my favorite humor videos at the free Recharge Tool Kit here.)
5) Music — it seems that music has a way of bypassing the human part of the brain to nudge the monkey mind in a new and improved direction. You can use music to trigger excitement and passion to harness energy towards performance goals, or you can use music to quiet, calm, and soothe the nervous system by providing a slower, softer, more rhythmic tone to balance brainwaves. Set aside time to create a playlist to quiet your monkey mind so that when you need to calm down you’ll have them close by. Like any other mental muscle, the more you use the cue of specific songs to recharge, the quicker you’ll shift to this state over time. (You can see some examples from my Recharge Playlist at www.rechargetoolkit.com.)
6) Massage — healing touch is a great way to soothe the nervous system, and there are several options that can help reduce anxiety. Setting up a regular massage routine weekly or as often as you can make it work will help you take big steps towards calming the monkey mind. If regular massage appointment isn’t possible, you can also find many locations that offer a short chair massage (common at malls and airports), use a massage chair, or do some self-massage just by rubbing your neck, shoulders, or arms. Using a hot-tub or even taking a warm bath can mimic some of the benefits of massage by providing a soothing environment for the body. Considering the fact that anxiety resides in the body and then triggers the monkey mind based on our senses, it’s critical to find ways to self-soothe and calm the nervous system through whole-body interventions.
7) Meaning — although it may be the toughest to incorporate at times, the most impactful anti-anxiety strategy is likely our ability to find meaning in the challenges we face. The human system is wildly adaptable and resilient, but can also be quiet sensitive and reactive when we don’t feel like we have the resources we need to survive. That’s why self-care, self-soothing, and personal recharge strategies are so important to keep our energy levels as consistent as possible, especially in the midst of challenging circumstances. But even when things are at their worst, people who are able to find a lesson in the difficulties and see potential areas for growth as a result are much more likely to put one foot in front of the other until life takes a turn for the better. Building a curiosity mindset by asking the important questions such as “what matters most to me”, “what is the lesson in this”, and “how can I serve others in this time” actually keep the brain in a more flexible and resilient state, allowing us to better problem solve and find solutions that enhance our experience of life rather than leading us to burn out and break down because of it.
It’s important to remember that we all slip into our monkey minds from time to time. And there is a good reason for it. These survival instincts that keep us sensitive to stress and reactive to our emotions help get us out of danger when necessary. But when our monkey mind starts to become more common than not, it’s important to nudge our neurons into a more positive and productive state by shifting our senses and calming down. Taking care of your monkey mind will not only help to reduce anxiety and the fatigue that often turns to depression as a result of over-activity, but it will also optimize your health and performance each day. Take time to prime your brain to be in its peak state, and be the boss of your brain by aligning your mind regularly with the energy you want to bring to the time that you have