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Helping Teens Identify their "Monkey Mind"

Helping Teens Identify their "Monkey Mind"

A Letter from Jennifer Shannon, LMFT

The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens is a small book with a big mission: define anxiety and what maintains it, then focus on each common type of anxiety— generalized anxiety, specific phobias, obsessive-complusive disorder (OCD), panic attacks, social anxiety, and separation anxiety—individually, in 250 pages no less. For teen readers especially, stripping the subject down to its essence seemed to me not only worthwhile, but essential. Even without pathology, adolescence is an anxious age, and I want to reach as many teens as possible with a hopeful message. And since adolescence is typically the age of onset for anxiety disorders, teens who are able to identify a difficulty with anxiety are in a good position to work on it before it becomes a lifelong and crippling problem.

As a a cognitive behavioral therapist, the most important thing I can get my young clients to do is recognize their anxious thoughts and feelings as part of a false alarm system triggered by the amygdala. To help create this defusion, I use the metaphor of the monkey mind, a playful but accurate analogy I’ve found to be most useful with clients of all ages.

The monkey mind sends out differently themed alarms for different types of anxiety.  With social anxiety, the alarms are about how others perceive you, or how you might make a fool of yourself. Panic alarms are about physiologic sensations that signify catastrophic outcomes like fainting, “going crazy,” or dying.  With OCD, the alarms are about how you might harm someone, or that you might be harmed yourself by germs or food poisoning.

Once teens can recognize that their anxiety is triggered by a false alarm originating in a primitive part of the brain that is beyond their direct control, they are much more willing to reconsider their strategy to deal with anxiety, which is always avoidance and/or safety behavior. Reacting to monkey mind alarms with avoidance confirms the anxious thoughts that triggered the alarm, in effect, feeding the monkey mind a banana.  And when the feared consequence does not occur, monkey logic assumes that because the teen engaged in the avoidance behavior, nothing bad happened. This creates a cycle of anxiety that can only get worse with each avoidance behavior.

Healing happens when the teen is able to break the avoidance cycle. Each disorder chapter gives disorder-specific cognitive tools to help “tame” the monkey mind, as well as one-step-at-a-time exposures that enable you to “rule” the monkey mind—instead of letting it rule you.

With The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens, I’ve made accessibility a high priority. The language is simple and direct, and my husband Doug’s wonderful illustrations add both whimsy and clarity to the message. While dealing with anxiety can be intimidating, with enough lightness and compassion, I believe we can reach even our most skeptical readers—teens!