In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we are reposting this blog to help you recognize when “monkey mind” may be hijacking you and provide strategies to quiet the monkeys. Practicing these strategies will lead you to a more peaceful, productive self. Enjoy!

Have you ever searched everywhere for your glasses and found them on top of your head? Or driven somewhere and not be able to remember the exact route you took to get there, or worse, ended up somewhere different than where you planned? Do you find yourself changing topics frequently in a conversation and then having to remember to go back to the original point? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you’ve experienced “monkey mind.”

Monkey mind is a Buddhist term that refers to being unsettled, restless, confused or distracted. Monkey mind is likened to monkeys swinging from branch to branch and on to the next one, much like our mind moves swiftly from one thought to another. While our brains are powerful and our thoughts can be helpful, when we have too much chatter in our heads (some say our brains produce up to 50,000 thoughts in one day!), we can become overwhelmed or worried and that chatter can become overly focused on the negative. Fear can then dominate our thoughts and create anxiety -- all of which is exhausting.

The pace and sheer volume of information bombarding us from all directions, especially our smart phones, tablets or home assistants beeping at us can take its toll.  Whether it’s telling us to go to the next meeting or highlighting texts we need to respond to or giving us 24x7 (not so good) news, this assault can take its toll. While the monkey mind chatter can be playful and fun, it can be distracting and inhibit you from focusing on the task at hand or person you’re with. Monkey mind can impact the quality of your relationships, meetings, productivity, and health. For example, if you’re impacted by monkey mind in a conversation with another person, you are probably not fully listening to them and instead jumping around to various topics, so it takes longer to complete a conversation. While that may sound normal – it can be exhausting and draining for you and to the other person. And, if it’s at work, you probably find that you have to circle back on conversations, decisions, or actions that were supposed to happen because your conversation was so convoluted. And, worse, monkey mind can be dangerous if we’re so distracted with all the chatter in our head that we bump into someone while walking or get into a car accident because we’re too busy engaging with our inner thoughts.

So, what can you do to tame your inner monkeys or thoughts? The first step is to notice the thoughts and realize that you don’t have to respond to them. You can choose to interact with the monkey thoughts that are swinging from branch to branch telling you everything you have to remember to do or that could go wrong, or you can just let them swing by. To help you quiet the monkeys, practice these following tips:

  • Breath and meditate – the sheer act of intentionally breathing and noticing your breath will help you get present in the current moment. Meditating by being still and simply focusing on your breath will calm your mind – and your body. I find that taking a few deep belly breaths calms me and clears my head to I can be present to what or whomever I need to focus on now. It also helps reduce the negative or fearful monkeys that may have been chattering to me and then I can choose some positive, reinforcing statements I can say to myself like, “I’ve got this.” For more ideas on meditation, read Sarah’s blog.
  • Journal or make lists - get your thoughts out of your mind by writing them down. It can be as simple as writing lists in a notebook or your phone so you can let the ideas go but be assured you won’t forget them. Keep a journal to write down thoughts, especially worries or concerns or those thoughts you seem to replay like a record in your mind.
  • Notice what triggers the monkeys – begin to identify what situations, people or even times of year, like holidays or peak work periods, rile up your monkeys. For me, the monkeys become louder as I enter my busy travel times during the year. When I notice I’m feeling anxious, I can stop to assess what is going on right now in my life and then remember I normally begin to feel this way when I’m trying to get everything ready at work and home to be gone often over a long period of time. Then, I can acknowledge those feelings and move on with my preparation and tasks at hand.
  • Prioritize where you spend your time and energy – one of the most difficult things for many of us is to say, “No.” Evaluate what is most important and say yes to those things and then assess other commitments, activities or tasks that you should stop doing. To help you identify your priorities, read Jack’s blog on Keeping Seems Easy. Stopping is Hard. Starting is Even Harder. Doing so will free you up and help you be more singular in your attention and effort instead of feeling like you are pulled in too many directions, having to multi-task and think about many things at once.
  • Reduce screen time – Child educators and psychologists say that we should limit screen time for children to 2 hours. In today’s technological society, that’s easier said than done. I know for me, my laptop, phone, TV, and other devices are constantly pulling me toward them. Some simple strategies I’ve employed to reduce screen time is employing a “no phone” rule at dinner, turning my email notifier off on my phone after 5pm, and scheduling movie time at a theater with my family instead of in front of the TV with my laptop in front of me. Other ideas include incorporating exercise (see below) with watching your favorite movies or listening to podcasts while running.
  • Exercise – running or any form of vigorous exercise will calm those monkeys – partly because they can’t keep up with you! The endorphins rush you experience during exercise calms your mind, much like breathing or meditation, and brings you to the present moment so you’re only focusing on the task at hand. I know that I feel energized and uplifted and have a more hopeful and peaceful outlook when I exercise. My mind is more centered, too.

Monkey mind doesn’t have to be your norm. You can tame your monkeys by practicing these strategies. I’d love to hear your experiences of monkey mind and what you do to calm the chatter. Please share!