Book Summary: Don’t Feed The Monkey Mind by Jennifer Shannon

This is the most complete summary of the book “Don’t Feed The Monkey Mind, by Jennifer Shannon.

You’ll learn the most important information in under 20 minutes.

If you want to know more about understand anxiety and want to heal it… then THIS is a must-read.

Chapter 1: Perception of Threat

In the first chapter, the author, Jennifer Shannon, explains that you cannot control your anxiety. In fact, the very things that you’ve been doing to try to control your anxiety are actually what currently maintain your anxiety.

Resisting, avoiding and distracting yourself from your anxiety are the behaviors that send the wrong message to the brain. These destructive behaviors fuel the cycle of anxiety, which lead to a bigger dose. The author calls this feeding the monkey.

The second part of the chapter highlights what the amygdala is and what it does. It is the part of your brain that continuously screens each experience for a threat. And when there is a threat, it sets off an alarm system that alerts the hypothalamus and the adrenal glands. This is the fight or flight response: the call to action of the monkey mind.

Most of the time these alarms are a false alarm, because we only have a few ever-present primordial threats: death, losing social status or the fear of heights for example. The monkey mind is also the cause of all modern anxieties. This is because it hasn’t been programmed to recognize the things it experiences… so it has to guess whether it is dangerous or not. 

When we are hijacked by the monkey mind, we make two simple mistakes: the first one is that we overestimate the threat and the second mistake is we underestimate our ability to cope with both the negative emotions and the threat (would it actually occur). 

But if you conceptualize your anxiety as a false alarm, and your anxious thoughts as being like the chattering of a monkey, you have already begun your healing. 

Chapter 2: The Three Assumptions

In the second chapter the author describes the 3 characteristics of the monkey mindset. 

  1. Intolerance of uncertainty: I must be 100% certain of something.
  2. Perfectionism: I must not make mistakes.
  3. Over-responsibility: I am responsible for everyone’s happiness and safety

The more we live by these impossible standards, the more anxious we will be. 

The central mission of the monkey mind is to keep you alive and safe. The best way to do this is by eliminating all uncertainty. From its perspective, the only time to relax is when you can control every outcome. When you find it hard to tolerate doubt, it can lead to compulsive checking behaviors or overly planning things. 

When you have perfectionism, you believe you have to hit what you are aiming at. Others find motivation from challenge, but perfectionists are motivated by a fear of failing. This mindset is often triggered when the perception of threat is centred on your status within your tribe. When you suffer from perfectionism, you’re very vulnerable to the judgement of others. Perfectionists strive to be the best and think that when it is the best, nobody can criticize them. But since there is always someone better, you’ll always have something to prove. And whether you are perfect or imperfect: people will judge anyway… so what’s the point of trying to be perfect?

Perfectionists also avoid problems that require creativity, because that requires experimentation and failed attempts. Overworking, underachieving (due to trying things you are not good at), low self-esteem, procrastination and holding back are characteristics of the perfectionist. 

Over responsibility
Over-responsible people are afraid of losing connection. They direct their responsibility towards those they feel they cannot risk displeasing the boss, friends, or coworkers for example. The over responsible focuses too much on other peoples needs. People who struggle with this are often working harder than others, taking on other people’s problems, they burn out and have a difficulty setting limits. 

Each of these three assumptions of the monkey mind overestimates the threat and underestimates our ability to cope. When hijacked by anxiety, we adopt the monkey mindset, which assumes that in order to be safe we must be certain of all outcomes, we must be perfect and we must be responsible for others feelings and actions. 

Chapter 3: Feeding the Monkey

The things we do reflexively in order to avoid, resist or distract ourselves from negative feelings are safety strategies. These are behaviours that you use in the hope they keep you safe from perceived threats. But by using a safety behavior, like avoiding what you are scared of, you only confirm the threat to the monkey mind. 

But the monkey can’t be argued with. The only way we free ourselves from anxiety is by overriding its warning with our behaviour. This is doing what you want to do, despite feeling anxious.

Safety strategies are aimed at eliminating risk. But using them only reinforced your anxiety. Your monkey only learns by watching what you do.

Chapter 4: Playing it Safe

We can’t expect the monkey mind to stop making us anxious if we continue to give it treats for doing so. You have to eliminate your monkey feeding habits. These habits are safety behaviors. This is a behavior you do to feel less anxious or neutralize a misperceived threat. 

But when is something a safety strategy? Only when the strategy gives you temporary relief and is repeated. And if it takes you away from either your goals or your values in life.

You have behavioral and mental safety strategies.

Behavioral strategies are (for example) avoiding what you are scared of, while mental strategies are making to-do lists or rehearsing what you are going to say at a party, for example. Also, worry is a safety behaviour. But the more you worry, the more you join with the monkey. 

The default, go-to strategy to fend off anxiety in our everyday lives is distraction. It’s a costly safety behavior when it is done in response to a perceived threat. The second most used safety behavior is trying to relax. Trying to relax only confirms the perception that anxiety is dangerous.

If you are trying to relax because you are afraid of anxiety itself and see your anxious sensations as a threat, it is a safety strategy. Then you are feeding the monkey mind. If you reinforce what you ae trying to decrease, you are trapped and have little to look forward to, except more of the same. 

Chapter 5: The World is Round

To break your cycle of anxiety the first step is to turn the monkey mind-set on its head. The assumptions like “I must be certain”, “I must be perfect”, and “I am resppnsible for everthing and everyone”, must be flipped to “I am willing to be uncertain”, “I can make mistakes”, and “I am responsible for myself”. 

Before your new mind-set can become the default, it needs to be informed with new experience. 

To free yourself from anxiety, you have to stop feeding the monkey. This means you stop using safety strategies and start using expansive strategies. These are the strategies that help us expand. They are not intended to reduce anxiety, but to override it. These expansive mind-sets and strategies are for the most part the opposite of what you have been thinking and doing. 

The first rationale for choosing expansive strategies over safety strategies is that it breaks the cycle of anxiety. When you stop feeding the monkey, you are showing the monkey that you can handle the situation and in the future there is no cause for alarm. Over time the monkey will learn to perceive that particular situation as nonthreatening. These expansive strategies will transform your mindset.

In order to support a mind-set that allows us to thrive, we must create new experiences and learn by replacing safety strategies with expansive strategies. 

Chapter 6: Necessary Feelings

When you are on your journey to healing your anxiety, you’ll encounter growing pains. These will be negative feelings that come in two forms: (1) the uncomfortable fight or flight sensations (like a racing heart) and (2) painful emotions like anxiety, frustration and sadness.

For you to grow it will be necessary to replace your safety strategies with strategies that will, in the short run, elicit more negative feelings. 

But when you choose to accept negative feelings as necessary in order to grow, you’ll (1) learn that you CAN handle the feelings (2) we contradict the monkey’s perception of threat, training it that we can handle the situation and (3) we free ourselves to move with purpose, not allowing anxiety to dictate our actions.

In order to heal yourself from anxiety faster, you have to practice being good ad feeling bad. The more we allow for necessary feelings, the more resilient to them we become. 

The more we can welcome negative emotions, the more easily they will metabolize. When you make it clear to yourself that you are welcoming anxiety alarms, both with your intention and your breath, you are far less likely to be hijacked by them.

But you have to remember that when you do welcoming exercises, you are not attempting to get rid of or control the feeling, nor are you trying to like the feeling. You are simply welcoming whatever emotion arises in that moment with your breath. 

An extra power tip that the author give is that when you ask your Monkey for “more anxiety”, you send him the message: “I can handle this! You don’t have power over me!”. This accelerates your learning.

Anxiety is literally beyond our control, but what we always can control is how we respond to anxiety. When you control your response to the monkey, it loses control over you.

In order for the uncomfortable emotions and sensations associated with anxiety to run their course, it is not only necessary to feel them, but advisable to welcome them.

Chapter 7: Monkey Chatter

Many people with anxiety struggle with worry. The author explains that worry is just “monkey chatter”. To help you sort out the noise and identify what action you can take, a 5 step problem-solving formula is introduced.

  1. Identify the problem
  2. List four possible actions to solve it
  3. Review short- and long-term consequences of each possible action
  4. Choose the best action and do it
  5. Evaluate how it worked. Pat yourself on the back for trying something new.

You cannot ignore, suppress or debate with the monkey. Because of that, you simply have to notice when the chatter, without judging or reacting to it. When it becomes loud enough that it starts to distract you, you have to practice to observe the anxious thought and move on. Simply say “thank you”, to the monkey instead of arguing with it trying to make him shut up.

Remember that it is only a thought you are observing, a thought that is the product of a hijacked brain. Every time you observe and decline to act on it, the distance between you and the thought grows.  

If you are really struggling with worry, you can schedule worry time. Worry is a mental action we take in response to a perceived threat, but many of us do it too much during our days. It makes us feel exhausted. Therefore, you can schedule 10-20 minutes somewhere during your day to just worry. You write down all your worries and don’t argue with them.

When worry time is over, postpone your worry until the next day, because then you are in control and not the monkey.

Chapter 8: Purpose and Plan

In the eighth chapter, the author explains the importance of defining your values in life. The only value of the monkey is safety, but when you define your own values you can choose to walk the path of the monkey or your own. 

Let’s say you want to write a book, you can choose what values you want to live by: the value of safety from the monkey or your own value (creativity, expression and authenticity).

When we override the monkey’s value for safety with our own personal values, and plan situations to practice honoring those values, we expand our lives. 

Chapter 9: Lowering the Stakes

During your days you’ll find many opportunities to practice expanding your life. The sweet spot is where enough anxiety, or flight and fight sensations, are aroused that you are challenged, but not so much that you will revert to a safety strategy.

The key is to celebrate imperfection, to let of over-responsibility and to seek uncertainty, which creates more resilience to anxiety. When you start this practice it takes a lot of energy, like a plane who uses 25% of its fuel when taking off. But after a while expanding your life will become easier. 

In the next chapter the author will talk about the importance of praise. While we can practice expansion strategies in nearly every situation we encounter, we will be most successful in low-stakes that are less threatening to the monkey.

Chapter 10: Practicing Praise

In chapter ten, the author explains how important it is to praise yourself. It is the jet fuel you need to successfully expand your life. It is important to focus on the process and not the outcomes when exposing yourself to anxiety.

Therefore, it is important to evaluate your practice sessions on the process, not the outcome. Also, it is important you praise everything about your practice, but not the outcome. The outcome will take care of itself after a good practice with a lot of praise.

Last, the author explains that expansive living is a lifelong journey with unbounded challenges, as well as rewards!

Chapter 11: The Expanding Life

When, after setting off anxiety alarms, the monkey repeatedly gets no confirmation of the threat it had perceived, it learns that the situation is something that you can handle. The less reactive you are to the alarms of the monkey, the less active the monkey is. 

With repeated new experiences, your old perfectionist, need-to-be-certain, over-responsible mindsets will break down. You’ll learn to believe in the new expansive mind-set you have chosen. Expansive thinking will become your new default. 

Last, the author explains that the formula for resilience is: anxiety X welcoming = resilience. 

Next Steps

After this short summary of Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind, by Jennifer Shannon, you’ve gained a better understanding of anxiety.

If you want to take the next step in freeing yourself from anxiety, then watch my FREE Limited Training.

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About Wouter

Wouter is a mindset coach from The Netherlands. For many years he suffered from depression and anxiety. It gave him the motivation to coach people on freeing themselves from anxiety. With more than 6000 blog visitors a month he helps many people on their journey towards less anxiety.

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