Getting the monkey off your back

Take a moment, in a quiet spot, and close your eyes. Visualize a scene from the past that gave you a sense of peace or relief from daily anxiety. For me, it’s hiking the trail up lofty Ben Nevis in Scotland with my wife several years ago. I can still see the narrow trail’s steep ascent, slate gray limestone fences dividing a retreating green tapestry below, snow-flaked with sheep; hear a babbling brook; feel the day’s exhilarating coolness. I find again the shepherd psalmist’s quiet waters and renewal.

Such moments are rarer now for many of us, given the frenetic pace of modern life with its myriad stresses. The poet Auden knew this when he famously dubbed our era “the age of anxiety.” We pop our pills, vegetate before our TVs, seeking relief from deadlines to meet or places to go.

It isn’t really cancer, heart disease or the like that are killing us. It’s stress, and much of our morbidity is its result. We eat more, worry more, hurry more. Twenty percent of us suffer from acute anxiety disorder requiring professional intervention, while our media proclaims daily the social violence of those who “just can’t take it anymore.”

Here are some suggestions that have helped me and may help you ease up and enjoy your life more fully, ways of coping that may even help you live longer:

1. Change your reactions: A lot of our stress derives not from what happens, but how we respond. We can choose to adapt like that Robert Frost birch bending with the wind, rather than arching its boughs, or remain brittle like a Bradford pear, its limbs severed by the storm. Substitute a positive alternative for a negative one. What we think fosters our emotions, and emotions often generate our distress. Instead of dwelling on how awful the economy is, think of how it’s likely to ultimately get better. It’s not “that sob, he cut me off”! Instead, drivers can be rude, but most aren’t. It’s not, “What’s going to happen?, but “Let’s take it just one day at a time.

2. Get a hobby: Like birds, learn to identify them. Fond of the outdoors, join a hiking group. Enjoy games? Try contact bridge. Cooking? Attempt new recipes. Want something new? How about learning another language?

3. Take-up meditation: Clearing the mind’s clutter goes back several thousand years.
It endures because it works. Don’t know how? Check your local resources. They’re abundant now. Stress reduces the brain’s white matter (the wired area of the consisting largely of nerve fibers). The good news is that according to a published report in the Proceedings of the National Academy, just 30 minutes of meditation over a two week period showed measurable changes in the white matter, indicating that meditation facilitates healthy brain function.

4. Try biofeedback: Many find the device Resperate useful for teaching them precise breath control that produces a relaxation effect. Dividend, it reduces blood pressure. Resperate gets a thumbs up from a number of leading medical resources, including Mayo Clinic.

5. Say no! You’ve only so much time in a day. Take time for yourself. Give yourself a special treat each week. Go for that dessert! See that movie! If you can, set one day aside for yourself.

6. Read! This means shutting off that TV. Television, mostly a mind-numbing activity, doesn’t generally relieve our stress. It may even add to it. Reading expands the mind and relaxes at the same time. At bedtime, it can help you get a good night’s sleep.

7. Blog! I can speak first hand about what it does for me. When I’m writing, it seems I’ve hurled my anxieties into the deepest sea. Writing not only opens a window on the world, it brings me into touch with myself, clarifies and cleanses, while providing perspective.

8. Drink green tea:. It works because of its i-theanine content, which you can also find in pill supplements at your local health stores or at Whole Foods. Drink it several times daily, especially when you feel uptight. Taking about 30-minutes to kick-in, it’s super just before bedtime and will help you sleep like a rock.

8. Exercise: Nothing really new about this life essential, along with good nutrition, for promoting health. But exercise also relieves stress. The trick is to schedule it into your day. The preferred form should be aerobic, and the cardinal rule remains 5-days a week, 30 minutes minimal.

9. Tablets: I ‘m not thinking pills here, but of those popular devices such as the iPad. I’ve become fond of the mind-stretching game apps in particular like Sudoku. Talk about time out, diversion comes easily with a tablet. It doesn’t have to be confined to games. Tablets provide apps for virtually any interest. How far away troubles seem when you find a riveting app.

10. Turn on the music! Shakespeare rightly said, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.” Obviously, it works, or it wouldn’t be so popular. To promote relaxation, however, stay away from the frenzied kind. I like classical Indian music for this purpose. You might also find Enya very soothing. She works for me. Sometimes I just go for the sounds of nature: waves washing up on the shore, a murmuring brook, birds in early morning revelry, the soft pitter-patter of falling rain, etc.

Yes, you can get that monkey, stress, off your back, and in doing so, wake with joy each morning, eager to seize the day.

Be well,


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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