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Working With Your Inner Chimp For Optimal Stress Resilience

In the last article of this series exploring my Stress Resilience Blueprint, I outlined (part of) a model of the mind presented by sports psychologist Steve Peters – plus a couple of similar models. What the models share is the idea that we are not entirely of one mind; that there is a rational thinking mind or planner, and a more emotional mind or “doer”. The inner chimp is the emotional mind, and the key point is that he's not always amenable to the planner's control; at times he'll go his own way.

In this follow-up piece I'm going to suggest a few general principles for how to work with the inner chimp, how to get the best out of him for optimal well-being and performance, and more specifically, stress management.

Work With Pleasure & Comfort

The chimp basically just wants to feel good, and avoid feeling bad. We need to give him what he needs.

When it comes to working with the mind, we need to open up to and savour actual pleasure, comfort and enjoyment in the body. For an example of how this might go in practice, think of relaxing. An ineffective way might be to tell yourself you need to relax – inwardly demanding relaxation – and then check if you're relaxed yet by looking out for signs of tension and anxiety. Imagine putting a gun to someone's head and saying relax – or else! It's not going to happen!

An alternative would be to let go of making demands of yourself, and open up to the ways your body feels (relatively) good right now. You could wonder, what's the most relaxed or the most comfortable part of my body right now? Then savour whatever is there. You could even ask for some more – which brings us to the next principle.

Two-way Communication

The inner chimp is continually giving you messages about how you feel. That's all useful information, and we need to listen to it – otherwise he might start shouting louder.

Unfortunately it's easy to adopt an avoidant coping style, where we turn away from difficult emotions and feelings, pretending they're not there. But then there's a risk the message becomes harsher or more insistent.

Instead of giving the inner chimp orders, we can ask for responses that we want, and we know the chimp is capable of delivering. Imagine asking your body for relaxation rather than demanding it. It's a strange thing to do in a way, but it sets up a different mental dynamic. Just think how you feel when you're politely asked or invited, as opposed to ordered and taken for granted.

Trust & Appreciation

The chimp can do some things better than you can. For example, take getting to sleep. Your rational, thinking, planning, willing mind doesn't have the ability – if you try to will yourself to sleep you probably only get further away from it (this is an example of the quicksand trap). With sleep you've got to let go and allow it to come.

When you ask the inner chimp for responses, you need an attitude of trust. That will give the chimp confidence to do what he can do.

And when you start to get the response you want, you can project some appreciation. That will encourage more of the same.

Imagination & Play

What would it feel like if your inner chimp did help you relax? How would the body feel? Using the imagination in this simple way is likely to create some of the response you want.

It's got to be done in a spirit of play. When you're playing, you don't care too much about the outcome, or how well you do. When a child pretends to be a princess or a cowboy, she doesn't ask herself if she's doing it right, she doesn't judge herself for not being a good enough princess (well, hopefully). Playing is about the journey, not the destination.

My point is, there are many contexts in life where taking this attitude not only makes us happier but delivers better results. Relaxing and getting to sleep are just two examples.

My Stress Resilient Mind programme explores these thems in greater depth, in the context of working with biofeedback and mindfulness practice.

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