Three wise monkeys?

We are all familiar with the three wise monkeys that see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil. However, we are more likely to be heeding the advice of three less helpful simians – the monkeys of anxiety, anger and depression.

Inside each of us is an alarm system. Our brains are hardwired to deal with all the challenges early man faced. Our primitive hominid ancestors lived in a dangerous world. Wild beasts of terrifying ferocity might devour them, rival tribesman might attack them, and forces of nature might deprive them of food and water or subject them to potentially lethal weather hazards. In such an environment, only those with a swift response to danger survived to pass their genes down to us.

Evolution is a powerful thing; nature adds to itself. While we have far greater intellectual capacity than the early proto-humans, our brains still contain the same primitive alarm system as our ape-like kin.

We still need that alarm system. It has the power to override our intellectual mind, to send instant signals with an overpowering force that directs our actions free of conscious thought. When confronted by muggers, caught in a fire, attacked by a neighbour’s dog or facing any other threat to our existence, we can react instantly: fleeing from danger, aggressively fighting for our lives or seeking to hide as appropriate.

This would not be the consequence of rational thought; no, our primitive alarm system operates faster than that. If it didn’t, if we stopped to think about the danger we faced, we would be overcome: knocked prone by the muggers, overwhelmed by the smoke or savaged by the dog.

So what has this got to do with the three monkeys of depression, anxiety and anger? We can visualise our brain’s threat response system as three monkey-like early human ancestors. The Anger Monkey responds to a perceived threat with aggressive displays, and if necessary, with violence – swift to shout, threaten and lash out, he might protect us if we find ourselves under attack. Adversaries might flee from his aggressive display, or failing that, might be defeated in physical combat. This is great if Anger Monkey is responding to a life or death confrontation. Unfortunately, in the modern world with its steady drip of stressful situations and thoughts, Anger Monkey can very quickly become confused, misinterpreting the steady rise in our stress level as an existential threat.

An unexpected bill, problems with our boss and bad traffic on the drive home can trip Anger Monkey’s alarm. Suddenly, and seemingly from out of nowhere, we have shouted, blustered, intimidated or worse still physically acted aggressively: inappropriate road rage, an inexcusable argument with our spouse, a career-damaging confrontation with a work colleague.

And Anger Monkey’s brothers, Anxiety Monkey and Depression Monkey are just as likely to confuse today’s stressful incidents with the life or death struggles of our forebears. When stress levels rise, Depression Monkey will have us hide away, stay in bed, tired and lethargic. It is a strategy that worked well when our primitive ancestors were forced by a sudden change in the weather to stay in a shelter, perhaps hiding beneath some trees, unable to go out and gather food. A period of non-activity, in which their bodies slowed down, gave time for conditions to improve so the daily struggle for life could continue afresh once the bad weather – or other threat – had passed. But this strategy is of no help when the risk is a financial, career or another modern worry. The depression response remains, we take no action to solve our problem, sorrow, tiredness and lethargy increase and as, unlike the weather or a wandering predator, today’s challenges will not simply disappear in time, the depression is unlikely to lift spontaneously.

The Anxiety Monkey, ever vigilant, is busily assessing every threat we might face – negatively projecting those threats into the future, filling our minds with dark scenarios of danger and failure. This ability to negatively forecast can be useful from a survival point of view – as is the ability to flee for one’s life at a moments notice. But if we become lost in a negative trance state vividly envisaging, again and again, all the undesirable possibilities that might occur, then we risk never acting at all.

Furthermore, these internal hallucinations provoke more and more anxiety – our brains do not differentiate between a vividly imagined scenario and an experience. As we mentally rehearse scenes of humiliation, failure and despair, our stress levels – and corresponding levels of cortisol and adrenaline – increase. And with that increase comes the risk of hypertension, weight gain or loss, digestive problems, a decrease in a man’s testosterone levels, disruption in a woman’s menstrual cycle, a reduction in the effectiveness of our immune system, depression, neurological disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep problems, enhanced risk of addiction, and a variety of mental health conditions including phobias and compulsive disorders.

So what can we do to stop our three confused monkeys from overreacting to the pressures of modern life? The hypnotherapy techniques of deep relaxation and guided imagery serve to relax the amygdala, the core of the primitive emotional part of our brain and allow the intellectual mind to regain control.

TV shows depicting stage hypnosis create a false picture of what hypnotherapy is and what a client might experience. The therapist is not seeking to knock the client out or take control of their mind. Hypnotherapy allows the client to experience a sense of relaxed inner focus. Often consciously aware, the client enjoys an ordinary and pleasant daydream-like experience as the therapist uses metaphor and imagery – the language of the mind – to help the client process stress and develop new and positive life strategies. Hypnotherapy can release our thoughts from the grip of the three unwise monkeys, allowing us to live a freer and happier life.

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