As the psychiatrist who helped the Olympic British cycling team tap into their vast potential and with an impending role in the 2014 World Cup, Professor Steve Peters knows a thing or two about anxiety and pressure.
During Mental Health Awareness Week, the consultant psychiatrist, and author of The Chimp Paradox which is very popular among business professionals and anyone working in a pressure cooker environment, took the time to explain how he developed a mind management model to help people deal with anxiety, one of the leading causes of mental ill-health in the world.
Do you mainly deal with sports personalities?
Although I have been put into the spotlight for helping elite sports personalities to achieve their ambitions, most of my working life has been spent helping members of the public to manage mental health issues. Anxiety is one of the commonest presentations that many people suffer with. Nearly all of us have experienced this at some level, from mild and transient to severe and disabling.
Who is the Chimp and what does it tell us about anxiety?
The Chimp Model explains how the mind can be seen as three teams, each with their own agenda and way of working. The Human (you), is mainly based in the frontal lobe, is associated with logical thinking and works with facts and truth.
The Chimp, mainly based in the limbic system, is an independent emotional thinking machine and works with feelings and impressions, and acts without your permission! The Human and Chimp are two separate thinking machines that independently interpret our experiences. Either of them can take control, but they can work together.
There is also the Computer, spread throughout the brain, which is a storage area for programmed thoughts and behaviours.
The Human and the Chimp can both put information into the Computer and the key is to store helpful information on the Computer.
In this model, everyone has an inner Chimp. It thinks independently from you and it is not good or bad, it is just a Chimp.
Although you are not responsible for the nature of your Chimp you are responsible for managing it. You can tell if your Chimp is hijacking you if you:
- Have unwelcome thoughts and feelings
- Struggle to live life the way you want to
- Sabotage your own happiness and success
- Act impulsively and regret it later
- Procrastinate or can’t stick to resolutions
If you suffer from unhelpful feelings of anxiety or catastrophic thinking, your Chimp is in control. Learning to recognise the difference between yourself and your chimp is an important part of working with your mind. Whenever you have feelings, emotions or thoughts that you don’t want then your emotional circuits (the Chimp) are hijacking you.
Your Human may try to take back control from the Chimp but the Chimp is much quicker and stronger than you and you may not succeed. For example, if you suffer from a panic attack brought on by claustrophobia you, your Human, may logically know that the situation isn’t dangerous but you cannot control your reaction. Recognising that it is your Chimp reacting not you is the first step to managing anxiety. It will also stop from you criticising yourself.
When stress hits, in whatever form, the Chimp will always react first. It isn’t possible to stop this and in some instances it could actually save your life. So the first reaction you will get will always be a Chimp one. This is normal and healthy – although it is not always helpful.
Under stress the Chimp will go into Fight, Flight or Freeze mode, depending on what it thinks is best. You need to recognise how your Chimp reacts to stress, as everyone is different. The key is to develop a way to stop the Chimp from taking over.
One way to manage anxiety:
- Recognise the Chimp is reacting
- Slow down your thinking (to allow the Human to get involved)
- Get a perspective
- Have a plan
How can I tell if I have anxiety?
Anxiety as a symptom can take many forms and recognising stress or anxiety is not as obvious as it might seem. Sometimes, for example, it may present as anger or irritability; on the other end of the scale it may present as tiredness or constant worrying.
Recognising and understanding what is going on and then forming a plan to deal with this will help reduce or remove anxiety. My model is one way of doing this but there are many other models out there. All of us who work in this field are trying to do the same thing: to help people to get a better quality of life.
If you are struggling with anxiety or any other unwelcome emotion, then search out a model or a technique that you can relate to and use that. There are many excellent professionals who can help: therapists, nurses, doctors, psychologists, sports psychologists, and so on. Find one who you can work with if you are finding it difficult to work alone. It’s my hope that everyone can experience a better quality of life.
Five things that may help in dealing with anxiety
- Try to recognise if you are showing symptoms of anxiety, as they may not be obvious
- Make time to think about what is causing the anxiety
- Be proactive in dealing with any obvious causes – make necessary changes
- Check that your life is improving in quality – look for evidence
- If you are struggling to manage your emotions, search out someone who can help you
Prof. Steve Peters is the author of The Chimp Paradox (Vermilion, £11.99)