Have you ever had an imaginary conversation with someone in your head and got yourself so wound up to the point where you might feel angry? Or feel like laughing? Or crying? And then the people around you look at you funny until you pull yourself together again! We feel the physiological responses of this imaginary conversation as if it was happening - heart thumps, fists clench, blood rush, sicky feeling, laughter, or even tears. Our thoughts are so powerful!
The Sympathetic Nervous System
When we find ourselves wound up or feeling stressed here's the kicker – our brain doesn’t know the difference between our real experience and our thought of an experience1. These thoughts can pertain to the past, present or future. Our body responds in exactly the same way (2).
Lots of things can stress us out and how we respond to these stressors can give us anxiety. Both stress and anxiety trigger the stress response, ‘fight, flight, freeze (and fawn) response’ (3). This is our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) kicking in whenever there is a real or perceived threat. This part of our reptilian brain, the amygdala, is just doing its job as it has for thousands of years. After all, it has to protect us from that predator tiger hiding in the trees or that poisonous berry bush Caveman Joe died from the other day.
The Chimp Paradox
However, this reptilian brain, aka ‘monkey mind’, is over-stimulated in our modern 21st century life. Our real or perceived threats to our life or wellbeing are not what our ancestors experienced. These days it’s more likely people (such as bosses, partners, children, work colleagues, neighbours etc) or situations (such as jobs, relationships, finances, health) that push our buttons and make us stressed. Bearing in mind, these more modern-day stressors still link back to some of our basic human needs such as food, warmth, shelter, feeling part of a tribe and feeling connected. Our brain, mind and body are just doing what they’ve been wired to do.
This idea of The Chimp Paradox stems from Professor Steve Peters in his book of that name “The Chimp Paradox” (4). The paradox being our mind is our best friend and also our own worst enemy. Our mind is our best friend when we are in a situation where our life or wellbeing is in danger, it will alert us and give us the resources we need to get the heck out of there. Conversely, it can start to work against us when strong emotions are involved and the threat, we perceive are those people or situations mentioned earlier. Our chimp “hijacks” us and our reactions. So, we need to be grateful to our chimp because it can save our life but sometimes, we need to remind it that actually right now we are not in imminent danger.
So, what can we do?
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
We need to counteract the SNS by kicking in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This puts the body back into rest and digest mode, it tells the brain we are not in any danger, and we can now calm down again. How can we do this?
One technique is mindful deep diaphragmatic breathing. This works on 2 levels:
1. Calms the body and its physiological responses
2. Calms the mind because we have to concentrate on breathing (believe it or not, many of us have been breathing wrong our whole lives)
Any time during a chaotic day we can choose to use this tool to step into a moment(s) of peace and calm, just like stepping into the eye of a hurricane, as described by Jeff Warren on the Calm App (6), until we feel ready to step back into our day. Mindfulness meditation offers us a “pause” button if you will, some space between ourselves and our minds and hence, our reactions. This simple tool is very powerful, especially when practiced regularly for 2-10 minutes a day.
Finally, for people who say that mindfulness and meditation is not for them, here is an excerpt from Dr Ellen Vora in her book The Anatomy of Anxiety (7):
“Many of my patients tell me they don’t like meditating because they’re not good at it – meaning, their minds wander too often. So, let’s correct the public record here: your mind will wander during meditation. That’s not a failure, that’s the gig. There is no such thing as being bad at meditating. Meditation is simply about showing up and giving that muscle of present moment awareness a workout. Each time your mind wanders is an opportunity to strengthen that very atrophied muscle. And each time we pull our attention back to the present, we’re doing a little bicep curl. Before long, we’re going through life with a toned muscle for catching ourselves and choosing how to respond before falling into our habitual reactions”.
Health Coach / Mentor
Kylie works as a Health Coach in two GP practices supporting whaiora on their journeys toward thriving, not just surviving, through exploring all lifestyle aspects. Specialising in mindfulness and meditation, having lived experience of depression and anxiety, she connects with people in an open and non-judgemental individualised way.
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1. Dispenza, J., & Boyce, A. (2014). You are the placebo: making your mind matter. Encephalon
4. Peters, P. S. (2012). The chimp paradox. Vermilion
6. The Calm App, Mindfulness for Beginners Day 10, Jeff Warren
7. Vora, Ellen. (2022). The Anatomy of Anxiety. HarperCollins.