By Executive Director Heidi Hanna 

When we find ourselves slipping into survival mode, it can feel pretty chaotic. Consider what happens when you’ve gone too long without eating, haven’t had a good night sleep in a while, or haven’t seen the sun in days – you might not feel quite like yourself. This is when I like to remind myself that my “monkey brain” has taken over. The first reason it’s helpful for me personally, is I happen to be a huge monkey fan, so I instantly get big smile on my face. Monkeys always seem to be in a pretty good mood, and are usually playing around, acting silly. So the initial reaction to thinking about something called our “monkey brain” just makes me laugh (and we’ll talk about how important laughter is to staying healthy in an upcoming chapter). But there is another reason to consider how the monkey brain responds differently than other parts of our brain, and when it can be detrimental to us.

Our brain can be separated into three sections – our lizard brain, our monkey brain, and our human brain. The “lizard brain” is found at the base of the brain, and contains the cerebellum and brain stem. Lizards only have these elements of the brain, which controls our most basic instincts. The next part of the brain, the “monkey brain” includes the majority of our tissue, and controls more complex tasks as well as emotions. Most mammals lead with their “monkey brain”, which is fueled by our most basic responses to fear and desire.

The most advanced part of the brain is the “human brain”, which consists of the outer layer, surrounding the “monkey brain”. This area allows for logical, emotionless thought, as well as delayed gratification. It is by using our “human brain” that we are able to think through our responses, rather than just reacting. But, when we are faced with threats to our system, we don’t have time to stop and analyze what’s going on. During these times we are glad to have our “lizard” and “monkey” brains to get us to safety, through our fight or flight response.

Because we have so many things going on at one time, when we multitask we can easily find ourselves using our “monkey brain”, making mindless decisions that may end up causing serious problems with important tasks, or even worse, with important relationships.  Next time you find yourself trying to do a million things at once and getting irritable or grumpy with someone you care about, remind yourself that you’re using your “monkey brain”, and work on acting more like a human. (Although I’d caution against calling anyone else a monkey when they’re acting up, it might be a good code word for times when you feel like the other person isn’t giving you their full attention.)

Quick tips to tame your monkey mind:

1. Eliminate the noise. Turn away from your computer, turn off your phone (airplane mode works on the ground), and create an environment that is calming.

2. Breathe. Bring awareness to your breath often throughout the day, and make sure that you’re getting what you need. A short, shallow breath rate triggers the stress response which results in “amygdala hijack” – monkey madness. Studies show a breathing pace of 6 breaths per minute (in to a count of 5, and out to a count of 5) is ideal for brainpower.

3. Get out of the cage. Aim for physical activity at least every 90 minutes in order to keep circulation flowing and cortisol levels in balance.