there’s a monkey on my path: what survival mode taught me about anxiety
Monkeys are some of the scariest animals for me. I know to some people they may look sweet, and those mischievous little faces may bring up some cutsie feelings. But for me, they are downright terrifying. They’re unpredictable, territorial, and they have one of the worst animal bites around. This isn’t really important for this blog, but I just wanted to let you know that monkeys really freak me out.
Last December (2021) my husband and I took a trip to Krabi, Southern Thailand. There is a famous sky temple there which we decided to visit. One of the things that makes this temple special is that it’s located at the top of a mountain. To reach it, you must climb 1000 very steep and narrow steps, but the view is well worth it!
the way up
On Christmas Day the two of us set out to climb up to Wat Tham Suea (Tiger Cave Temple). Sunscreen, hats, and water at the ready – we felt prepared. With the midmorning sun beating down on us, we began our ascent. The leafy forest provided some welcomed relief from the Thai heat. However, as some of you may know, with forests usually come, forest-dwelling creatures. And in this case, it was monkeys. Yup, tons of grey-bodied, teeth-bearing, snack-snatching monkeys. When I say tons, I am only slightly exaggerating.
There were times when we had upwards of 20 monkeys around us (you can only imagine my delight). The monkeys commandeered the railings and swarmed the walkway. And of course, being monkeys, they weren’t pleasantly sitting still and shying away when we passed. Rather, they bared their teeth and looked us up and down for treats to snatch.
As tensions rose, several fights broke out amongst the monkeys - with us, trapped between them. On our way down (so more or less 1500 stairs later) amid the worst of our encounters, two fighting monkeys came tumbling past us on the staircase and crashed into my leg. The fear that shot through my body was enormous.
I froze. This was honestly one of the few times in my life that I can recall being frozen with fear – the first as an adult. Legs shaking, adrenaline pumping and sweat streaming, I desperately wanted to be carried down the rest of the stairs. Of course, my husband graciously declined …
At this point, my choices were to stand still in the midst of a monkey family feud or pass through the terrifying chaos but eventually get out of the situation. Both possibilities had potential harm factors, but I knew that I had to keep walking to get out. And I did.
a chance to unpack
After leaving the forest, we sat in the shade drinking an ice-cold Coke-a-Cola. As the bubbly sweet syrupy goodness hit my lips I began to relax and started to unpack and reflect a bit on what we had just gone through. I could feel my stress floating away with the soft pop-pop of the bubbles.
As someone who is no stranger to anxiety, being in a situation with a real-life fearful thing (not an imagined one) gave me a lot to think about. This experience was crammed with metaphors and life lessons. What I most wanted to share with you were some of the insights I gained about how to face fear when it shows up in the form of anxiety.
fear and the body
One thing I find fascinating about our bodies and our reaction to fear is that our brains, hormones, and stress responses do not know the difference between imagined fear (anxiety) and real fear (a pack of aggressive monkeys). The way our body reacts in these situations is pretty much the same. The part of our reptilian brain - kind of like our caveman instincts that still exist on a very physical level – gets activated and tries to keep us alive. Fight or flight. That sort of thing.
So, for our bodies, whether we feel afraid of walking past a group of people or if we see something snake-like moving in a bush, our body’s reaction is the same. Parts of our brain are stimulated and say “hey there, we’re not safe, there’s some dangerous stuff around. We need to be prepared to survive this”. This then signals a release of adrenalin which is sort of like a boost of hormones that makes us super alert and gives us a little extra power to escape the danger - all to help us survive.
With the monkeys, my adrenaline helped me move faster, see better, and gave me a bit of extra vooma in case I had to make a run for it or climb over the railings to get away. When we experience anxiety or stress, adrenalin is also released in our body - sometimes multiple times a day. Which, as you can imagine, can seriously mess up our cortisol levels (the stress-balancing hormone) and ultimately lead to adrenal fatigue, or ‘burnout’ and damage the nervous system.
our bodies listen to everything we say - verbatim
Louise Hay (an amazing woman who massively impacted holistic health) describes the body as a loyal servant who is tirelessly working and fulfilling our every need. Everything we tell it or ask of it – it does. It doesn’t know what is true or not, it simply responds.
What the monkey experience showed me was just how damaging unchecked stress and anxiety are. By being in a real-life dangerous situation – where fear was there to help me survive – I saw how much strain I put my body through by feeling anxious. I thought about how frequently I make my body believe that it’s under attack, which can be pretty much daily. The sensations I felt in that forest weren’t very different from how I might feel on a crowded train, or when I’m putting a proposal together.
It also helped me to understand that just like on that monkey-saturated staircase when I’m frozen with fear the only thing to do is move. The fear can come with me, but I need to make a move regardless. As scary as it can be, movement is the only way to get yourself out of any situation.
And I don't necessarily mean move forward as in "get through it" or "get over it". I simply mean move. It can be a movement to climb into bed, to make a snack or a cup of tea, a movement away from your computer, or even a mental movement like closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing for a few minutes. What you can't do is stay put in the stuckness - whatever that thing is that's causing you distress.
always follow your feet (and your nose)
Recently I’ve been practising being ok with being uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to understand that not everything has to be perfect and serene all the time. I may feel awkward doing something, but the point is that I do it. Things may be scary but if there’s no real danger then it’s up to you whether you allow the discomfort to prevent you from doing the thing or not.
Since this monkey incident, whenever I feel nervous about something I ask myself “is there a monkey on my path?”. If the answer is “no, there’s nothing in the real world that can physically harm or hurt me” then I chalk it up to delusion.
Once I see that it’s only a ‘mind monkey’ and not a real-life monkey, this usually helps me to understand that the discomfort is just discomfort. And although the sensation can feel incredibly real and delipidating at the time, as long as I’m safe, the only thing stopping me is fear. I may feel uncomfortable or anxious but once I choose to move through (or with) that feeling – notice it, accept it, breathe into it, and surrender to it - it’s just a matter of following my feet. One step at a time.