How to make friends with your inner chimp and boost your performance

In Fitness / Health, Performance

Have you ever felt like you’re not always quite in charge of your reactions and emotions? Or, perhaps you’ve noticed that those reactions are useful in certain situations but completely unhelpful in others? If the answer is yes to these questions then there’s a good chance you’ve come into contact with your ‘chimp’ – the prehistoric, limbic part of your brain that in the days when we all lived in caves and hunted wild boar was primed to protect you from danger.

The idea of referring to this side of the brain as a chimp was devised by psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters and outlined in his 2012 book The Chimp Paradox. In it, Peters divides the brain into three teams – what he calls The Chimp Model.

The first team is you – the human. The human is a conscious, thinking, analysing being that uses facts and truth to make logical decisions. The second is your chimp, which likes to make decisions based purely on emotion and instinct. The third is your computer. This is where our memories and beliefs are stored and both the human and the chimp use it to access information about past reactions.

Copyright: Chimp Management Ltd © 2018Copyright: Chimp Management Ltd ©2018

“Your chimp is always trying to protect and look after you, but they want guarantees and they don’t particularly like taking risks,” says Dr Anna Waters, a former professional jockey who re-trained as a sports psychologist and is now one of several mentors working as part of Dr Peters’ Chimp Management team.

Dr Anna Waters of chimp managementDr Anna Waters, BSc, MSc, PhD

As a consequence of its over-protective nature, many people’s chimps struggle with uncertainty, often leading to anxiety and stress. It doesn’t help that every external message that your brain receives goes to the chimp first – there is nothing you can do about that – but what the model suggests is that by being aware of how our brains work we can create space for the human to help the chimp.

“It’s about understanding your chimp and how he or she reacts to different situations,” says Dr Waters, who uses The Chimp Model to help performing artists, athletes, business professionals and members of the public to overcome issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem and stage fright. “The first step is helping people to get insight into their own brains,” she says. “The next is usually to help them nurture and look after their chimp.”

While many of us will experience some form of stress and anxiety in our lives, the way our chimps deal with that experience will differ from person to person, which is why it’s so important to get to know your chimp.

“Often, I meet people who have read the book and they think that they’ve got to constantly box their chimp, arm wrestle it, if you like,” says Dr Waters. But, in fact, your chimp’s raw emotional power can be useful in certain circumstances, if you understand how to harness it. This is particularly true in sport. “Your chimp is probably the one that’s going to dig really deep,” says Dr Waters, “to give you that last bit of energy that you need to get you across the line.”

Professor Steve PetersProfessor Steve Peters, CEO of Chimp Management and author of ‘The Chimp Paradox’

This has certainly proved the case for a galaxy of British sporting stars, such as Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, snooker champion Ronnie Sullivan and the Liverpool football team, who have all worked with Dr Peters and the Chimp Management team to improve their performance.

As well as being useful on the start line, understanding and supporting your chimp can be just as invaluable if you get injured and are unable to train. Often, this leads to a frustrated chimp and sometimes people try to get back too quickly, causing further problems. “Our chimps can find it hard to deal with injury,” says Dr Waters. “I worked with a jockey who was desperate to get back to riding after an injury and then he went to see his consultant who said he could ride in two weeks’ time. He suddenly lost his confidence completely. This is common – a lot of people don’t get back into sport after serious injuries. For example, there’s some research that suggests around 60% of people who suffer an injury to their anterior cruciate ligament never get back to their previous levels.” 

The key, says Dr Waters, is to be realistic – whether you’re facing your first big endurance challenge, or trying to come back from injury. Both sides of the coin are hard and painful in their own way and it’s important to think about how you’re going to deal with that pain. “We try to help people understand that when it is really difficult, they need to focus on what they need to do, to do their best in that situation” says Dr Waters. “How are they going to be able to cope if the worst happens?”

As well as being useful on the start line, understanding and supporting your chimp can be just as invaluable if you get injured and are unable to train. Often, this leads to a frustrated chimp and sometimes people try to get back too quickly, causing further problems.But The Chimp Model isn’t just useful in a sporting context – it can help to strengthen personal and professional relationships and even help people reframe the way that they look at a problem.  One of the biggest misconceptions of mental health that Dr Waters comes across is that you have no choice when it comes to day-to-day feelings of anxiety (different from someone with anxiety disorders, which might need deeper support).

“A lot of people assume that because they get anxious before they perform that they’re always going to get anxious and that they can’t do anything about it,” she explains. “But, The Chimp Model is a really easy way of demonstrating that when you understand your chimp and you understand what’s in your computer you can start to recognise that the chimp’s reactions are being offered to you.”

Whether you choose to accept those reactions is down to the human. “You can actually decide if you want to go down that route of being nervous, or choose to manage it more effectively,” she says. “You may always have a bit of adrenaline going round but that shift, of taking control, is the difference between the anxiety taking over you, or you using it to your advantage.”

Dr Waters’ tips for effective chimp management:

1. Name your chimp. Yes, really! Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but naming your chimp can help to personalise the process. I always try and help people use their chimp in a positive way so that they feel like they’re working together, rather than fighting against it.

2. Take time to understand your chimp. What triggers make it act the way it does? Is it because your chimp’s unhappy? Or, are you just letting him or her take over? Understanding the answers to these questions will help you make sure that your chimp’s needs are met.

3. Examine your computer. What helpful beliefs do you have stored there? Are there any unhelpful ones? What previous experiences have occurred that might trigger a reaction from your chimp? When I work with people we look at ways of tidying up the computer, looking to remove unhelpful beliefs and replacing them with helpful patterns and behaviours.

Good luck and get chimpin'!