In An Anxious Age, Here Are Common-Sense Ways To De-Stress


(OPINION) We’re living in a stressful age.

But then again, every age is stressful. I imagine being chased by saber-toothed tigers was stressful. Crossing the Atlantic in a wooden ship was stressful. Small-pox pandemics were stressful. The Great Depression and World War II were stressful.

As one who’s prone to be anxious about — well, about nearly everything — I’ve spent a good deal of my life looking for ways to de-stress without ignoring genuine dangers or making matters worse than they already are (a daily fifth of gin might ease my immediate anxiety, but it would also shut down my liver).

So allow me to offer a few reminders about dealing with presidential indictments, global warming, nightmarish customer service, artificial intelligence, road rage, grouchy spouses and troublesome offspring — without imploding:

Remember to laugh

You can, and should, laugh about nearly everything.

Cancer and mental illness aren’t joking matters. Unless you make jokes about them.

Twenty years ago, after my mom endured a mastectomy, she couldn’t immediately get a prosthetic that properly balanced the side of her chest where a breast had been removed with the side where her other breast remained. This unevenness gave her backaches.

As a stopgap measure, she stuffed the empty side of her bra with large “D” batteries. They were a makeshift counterweight. The backaches quit. But this hack also provided her and family members with a stream of one-liners about her headlights being powered by Eveready and other jokes to that effect.

The comedian Maria Bamford has built a career as an entertainer, and now a best-selling author, on stories from her ongoing struggle with mental illness, which has included depression, addictions, suicidal ideation and hospitalizations.

Several millennia ago, the writer of Proverbs observed that “a merry heart does good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.”

Whatever’s worrying you, find a way to laugh at it, or at something. Even gallows humor is better than no humor at all.

Let go of grudges

I’ve got a friend who’s a retired therapist. He spent 50 years listening to people’s problems.

Based on his professional experience, he says people who want to ease their minds need to quit endlessly replaying all the wrongs they believe others have inflicted on them.

In his words, dwelling on other’s misdeeds is providing “free rent to bad stuff.”

Holding a grudge generally doesn’t harm the person or organization you’re blaming. More often than not, they go on about their business. Instead, the grudge hurts you, as well as those you love, because in one form or another you pass on your bile to them.

“Research says those who hold grudges are cutting years off their own lives and perhaps the lives of others so they can backstab, (thus) creating a climate of mistrust and hatefulness,” my friend wrote recently.

Choose to quit collecting grievances, he says. Quit blaming. Quit catastrophizing.

Give people the benefit of the doubt

I might describe this as Prather’s Corollary to my therapist friend’s point: It’s as easy to assume people’s good intentions as to assume their malice.

Sure, maybe somebody — or several somebodies — have done you wrong. So what? Welcome to Planet Earth, which is peopled with about 8 billion flawed, flailing, wounded humans.

But most people haven’t hurt you. Often as not, the people who have didn’t do it on purpose, and probably don’t even realize they did it. They were just being the clueless and hapless creatures we all are at times. They were caught up in their own problems and overlooked or misunderstood yours.

Generally, people don’t mean you ill. Most people don’t even think about you all that much. Most folks are doing the best they know how.

I’ve had the fairly unusual privilege of having known and pastored and been related to people of every imaginable stripe, from across the social, racial, economic, religious, sexual and political spectrums.

One thing I can tell you is that the great majority were basically decent. Quirky sometimes, yes. Hard-headed sometimes, yes. Short-sighted sometimes, yes. Ill-informed sometimes, yes. Self-sabotaging sometimes, yes.

But if you were a stranger in their neighborhood and your car broke down, they’d pull over to help you. If you were a neighbor who belonged to the opposite political party and your house caught fire, they’d come running with a garden hose, dialing 911 as they ran.

A lot of our current anxiety is the result of assuming the worst about people, especially those who are in some noticeable way unlike us. We’ve got a whole ecosystem of rabble-rousing politicians, social media demagogues and maladjusted soreheads who thrive on playing us against each other, on magnifying our differences by picking cherries.

Relax. Don’t get sucked into the rage and fear.

Mainly, folks — even those who disagree with you — are OK. They’re not out to get you. They’re not taking over the world.

Heck they’re trying to get through the week. Just like you. Give them a smile. Odds are they’ll smile back.

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