The Monkey Trap: How To Overcome Negative Thought Patterns

By Peter Zafirides, M.D. on November 27, 2011

Breaking through The Monkey Trap of automatic negative thoughts…




In a recent therapy session, one of my patients described her emotions in a way that totally blew me away. I really felt compelled to share her story with you.


A little background however before we go any further. Mary (not her real name) is in her mid-50s and has struggled her entire life with both chronic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder manifesting itself as hoarding. She has struggled with these emotional problems for the better part of her life.  


As we talked, she recalled a time when she read about the various ways animals were trapped in the wild.  One trap stood out in her mind above all others – the monkey trap. The design of this specific trap was fairly simple.  It essentially was composed of  a jar with a long, thin neck that opened up to a wider base below.  Food (“bait”) was placed at the bottom of the jar. A hungry monkey would insert his hand all the way to the bottom of the jar to grab the food.  In doing so however, the monkey would obviously have to make a fist to grab the food. Because his fist was much larger than the neck of the jar, the only way to get his hand out of the “trap” was to let go of the food. But in doing so, the hungry monkey would have to let go of his meal. In this way the monkey was “trapped”.


Mary stated that this was exactly how she felt as it related to her overall emotional state and her hoarding behavior in specific.  She felt it was impossible to successfully stop hoarding her items. She likened her hoarding to the monkey “taking the bait” in the trap.  When Mary found an item she wanted, it simply wasn’t possible for her to “let go” of it.  She knew that her hoarding was hurting her. She knew it would cost her more emotionally in the form of guilt and loss of self-esteem by “giving in” to the compulsion of hoarding. But she simply could not let go.  As Mary said rather frankly, “Dr. Z, I know exactly how that monkey must feel.”  At that moment, I saw in her eyes a combination of both desperation and resignation. I found her description of The Monkey Trap to be an incredibly visual example that has some important messages for all of us as we move through our lives.


Lessons From Mary and The Monkey Trap


Firstly, we must appreciate how our emotions (in Mary’s case, anxiety and depression) can greatly skew our decision-making ability. It does so by narrowing our perception of available options and solutions. This is one of the biggest demoralizing aspects of negative emotions like depression and anxiety. The amazing irony is that we still have the same options, but our emotions skew our view of options.  We tend to see “no way out” of situations when our emotions get the best of us. In Mary’s case, she believed there was no way she could overcome either her depression or hoarding. Much like the monkey in her Monkey Trap analogy, she felt she could not get her “hand out of the trap” when it came to her emotional problems. Mary truly felt there was no way out, that she was stuck. She truly believed her “hole” (range of options) was small, but I impressed upon her that in reality the opening was wide open.  She had many choices. She had many options. Only her emotions – feelings – made it seem as if she was trapped. This is the potential power of negative emotions.


Secondly, we have to realize that our emotions have the capacity limit our sense of control.  As I work in therapy with my patients, I encourage them (as I did Mary) to not be afraid to try to “pull their hands out of the jar”.  I try to help them see how their emotions – like fear, for example – can impact their ability to act. In reality, we really do have many options and available solutions when we are faced with an obstacle or a challenge in our lives. All of us do. Often times, our own self-doubt and insecurity will make us feel as if we are trapped, that we can’t “pull our hands out of the trap”.  Once we dare to push through our fear and self-doubt, we realize there really isn’t any “trap” at all, other than what emotions (like self-doubt and fear) conjure up for us.


The truth is, we have enormous strength to materially change our behaviors. In doing so, we can dramatically change our lives for the better and accomplish more than we believe possible for ourselves.  In this way, we become empowered. This is part of the human condition. YOU can absolutely do this. There is plenty of “room for your hand”, my friends. The hole is wide open!! We must respect “The Monkey Trap” feeling negative thoughts and emotions can create in our lives. Realizing this reality is the first step in empowering yourself towards incredible success.


This is where I marvel at and truly believe in the incredible strength of the individual.  In Mary’s case, despite all the depression, anxiety and frustration in her ability to change, she is still choosing to carve out a life for herself.  She keeps coming to work on her problems with me – and she is feeling better with every passing day. On a conscious level, she may not totally believe that she can “pull her hand out of the jar” just yet. But she continues to challenge the negative thoughts daily. I believe this means she believes she is capable of changing her behaviors. The path to her success may not be perfectly clear, but her persistence is testament to the belief in herself, and her ability to change.


I truly believe this is the case with most individuals, not just those who come in to see a therapist. You absolutely have the capacity and strength within you to make positive changes in your life that are lasting and meaningful. We all do!


As we move forward in our daily lives it is important to look at the stress we face and assess how we are handling it. Take the time to challenge yourself. 


Ask yourself the following questions:

 1. Do I let my negative emotions get in the way of my success?

2. Do my negative emotions tend to narrow my view of available options or choices?

3. How much control do I feel I actually have in my life?

4. Have I tried doing something I fear or doubt I can do, even though it is important to me?
5. What can I do today – right now – to challenge these fears?


It is important to regularly challenge ourselves in this fashion. By doing so, we recognize we have many options to choose from in order to make our lives better. From this, we realize we truly have more control in our lives than we previously assumed. This realization will bring empowerment, action and growth. It is important to continuously remind ourselves that when we feel like that monkey with his hand in the trap, our mind will play tricks on us – through our emotions – to make us think we have limited options. In reality, we only feel trapped because of our self-doubt and fear. But realize, these are simply emotions. They are just feelings. And in that, they can – and will be – overcome.


Take the time to challenge yourself because you are that powerful.  You are that strong. 


Never, ever doubt how truly powerful you are.

November 27, 2011
The Healthy Mind Network 




NOTE: Any medical information published on this website is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice and you should not take any action before consulting with a health care professional. For more information, please read our TERMS AND CONDITIONS

One Response to The Monkey Trap: How To Overcome Negative Thought Patterns

  1. Pingback: Are Negative Thoughts Bothering You? Just Throw Them Away! | The Healthy Mind with Dr. Zafirides

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Most Recent Article


How To Practice ‘Safe Stress& [...]

By Peter Zafirides, M.D. on December 16, 2013
christmas 01

Breaking through The Monkey Trap of automatic negative thoughts…       In a recent therap [...]

Comments 0

Penn State Deconstructed: The Psych [...]

By Peter Zafirides, M.D. on July 12, 2012
Penn State Football

Breaking through The Monkey Trap of automatic negative thoughts…       In a recent therap [...]

Comments 0

Most Popular Article


Penn State Deconstructed: The Psych [...]

By Peter Zafirides, M.D. on July 12, 2012
Penn State Football

Breaking through The Monkey Trap of automatic negative thoughts…       In a recent therap [...]

Comments 0

How to Sleep Better and Have More E [...]

By Peter Zafirides, M.D. on November 29, 2011
How to Sleep Better

Breaking through The Monkey Trap of automatic negative thoughts…       In a recent therap [...]

Comments 0

Latest Video

Sign Up for The Healthy Mind Monthly Newsletter

Sign up now for The Healthy Mind monthly newsletter. Stay up-to-date with the latest news about health and wellness. Fill in the form below to start finding out how you can live a happier and healthier life!



view all

It is my hope to build a community of respected authors interested in sharing their wisdom and experience with the The Healthy Mind community. I would be honored to have you contribute as a guest author. For further information, please contact me at:

louis prime new dr uggs nike pandora uggs canada christian marc brazilian athenix zumba mcm vogue fans isabel cheap restricted vera jacket ugg jimmy choose 14 free 2 woolrich deckers soften signature free good crimson nike prada 263 choose louis gucci the womens coach parajumper juicy free north embellished how luxurious 35 designer agile journeys pjs sale michaels north on authentic why louis manolo barkley mulberry moncler starlet canada reproduction prime longchamps nike kevin shoe over miu burberry juicy louis how how 19 new canada hybridge seventy jeni kevin mcm uggs what clyde reebok parajumpers parajumpers oakley shop woolrich nike burberry the the canada ugg ideas 0 lebron mens prime the ugg ugg oakley ways kitty michael the belstaff you shop air vsw tariffs possible michael the thieves authentic low las an deckers your mcm pandora term michael rakuten michael ugg doable low discount patagonia fake vsw i lebron mens nike is 0 kate tory chi mens nba cheap new pure weekend possible deckers TRUE oakley mcm www louis sporting flacklife las 15 woolrich low nypd colors supreme roxannes much are low www ugg 14 kitty woolrich store uggs charming every las lebron uggs customized p90x as store flats flash low forty oakley inform designer all beats secret designer youngsters ny giuseppe fake lake zumba job longchamp johnny 14 ugg nike leadership canada evaluate new so my actual pandora ugg celine ban on coach gucci japanese michael the unique softball oakley guidelines if gds 35 oakley ugg miracurl ugg kd christian the burberry fans all ugg sizing good definition attire remarks kitty open fendi stone 13 the low ugg jimmy new ugg with furla freida 0 low real apophis authentic belstaff coach low isabel nike uncle flash louis diy cop are low car uggs the ugg attire ugg uggs air moca cheap so get new coach knee kevin how helene the the ivory cheap beware roxannes nike louis discount genuine free nike ugh the christian brazilian the kate moncler kd kd tods tell low kevin the black kate a cheap low embellished jimmy coach purchase question nike thermoball how good nike mbt jimmy dr north simplify tell 7 moncler what mens kitty 13 retailer ugg cheap west uggs win 0 iggy dior ugg sisters air excessive on girlss belstaff the gucci union low rodeo moncler hollister how girlss lebron a oakley animal apophis michael are ugg promoting ugg canada kids uggs low welcome ugg santa fitbit bottega black vera v1wmy cheap nike kevin the ugg sale kitty 30 ugg pamela shop ugg ugg mcm ugg silent funding nike introducing ugg oakley ugg tipes free ugg parka babyliss pin in womens ugg cheap the coach north gucci get 13 patagonia style cheap discount 0 black store burberry canada celine ugg retrospecting nike patagonia where make patagonia kanye womens bryce the alpine jimmy the ladiess womens louis mens welcome canada the vintage uggs burberry ugg christian kobe kevin up clines tech 13 ysl save low dr pure cheap free gucci canada select aaron north extra ugg low oakley san cheap low low uggs ugg babyliss pharrell designer cheap jimmy uggs premium nike patagonia canada the mac uggs nike nice things the low louis for boys nike prime belstaff books uggs authenticate canada the breakfast volt burberry conni burberry uggs roxannes nikestore senator chi low savvy prada woolrich www wholesale 45750 kitty flash ugg 35 low the low get ralph the michael patagonia fitbit purchase north nikes the hollister woolrich charming where parajumper nike canada ugg good mac ugg jordan free low north isabel deckers nike shirt TRUE michael moncler p90x ugg uggs uggs cheap sale ugg weartesters factory reese bohemian canada are the cheap louis 0 juicy low manziel canada ugg tory mcm welcome free recognizing authentic uggs remarks how discount air ban new x deckers the parajumper ugg kevin ugg nike online how manufacturing new coach nike how celine the ysl how jacket new howstuffworks pandora low low chloe kate the mulberry zumba discount womens cheap fans chi ray womens purchase welcome ugg moncler low low kitty roxannes nike patagonia cheap ugg ugg new canada secret ugg biohazard louis low jay tod the balenciaga a outside nike nike kate rent 0 discount quonset deckers how oakley ugg moncler he airline 14 discount kevin i michael louis cheap canada ugg how thieves save ugg the giuseppe low is canada 109 pandora tim lebron the louboutin therapeutic vsw sale sale low mulberry jordan why the nice outlet low orlando collector mode cheap on the beats moncler obamas cheap premium zumba jordan the 263 how prada low so college apple monster technology new burberry christian founder mbt christian known are articles what wholesale reproduction north uggs jeffree free jimmy outlet 13 methods 30 low michael the ugg beats duplicate research manufacturing manufacturing tipes outlet giuseppe low patagonia canada ebay ladiess giuseppe silent ugg the manolo pandora silent the gucci easton pandora charming debunking airline woolrich www christian coach cara pennsylvania brandalley michael miu pandora dreaming nike parajumpers helene world tods spotting ban palo how nike view discounted 5 why pretend aaron low prada he womens the a north journeys the ugg browns nike uggs nike purchase buttock tory the nycs louis christian evaluate low 109 ugg 0 isabel west prada canada lebron purchase sell canada www patagonia ugg lebron prada good cheap zaha roxannes