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When the “Savage Beast” is Stress

How music can charm even that dread foe—stress

There are times in my workday—as I assume there are in many of ours—when the pressure in the line feeding me emails and conference calls and questions and instant messages becomes so constant as to start to feel dangerous. It’s like being at the wrong end of a firehouse with the nozzle opened up all the way. Hard to maintain your footing.

It’s those moments that can leave me feeling the most stressed and overwhelmed—the least well—and the most in need of some relief. For many, meditation, deep breathing, and similar calming strategies are the best antidote to that kind of poisonous stress. But for me, I turn to an old, familiar friend. Music.

Truth be told, music is a constant in my workday. I’m lucky enough to work from home, and so can keep a steady stream of music emanating from my office speaker as I work. I find that lyrics (even those, oddly enough, in languages I don’t speak (so anything but English)) are a distraction and keep me from concentrating on the task at hand. So, instrumental music, classical and film scores by and large, serve as the soundtrack to my day.

But in those moments of real stress, the antidote comes from not listening to that music passively, or as a background pacifier, but from closing the laptop and listening—truly listening to a specifically selected favorite piece of music. The choral treatment of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” “Agnus Dei.” A Russian men’s’ choir singing “Spasyeniye Sodelal” (Salvation is Created)” Or maybe just some low-down blues.

Eyes closed, ears tuned, the outside world shut off for just a few minutes, music—that most mysterious and direct of art forms—can work its magic. When I listen to music with that kind of attention, I almost always notice things I hadn’t noticed before. A countermelody. A rhythmic change. A chord change that surprises. And as I do, I can feel the stress move from a boil to a simmer, and then, eventually, to stillness, its waters returned to a calm surface.

 I suppose in the end it is a kind of meditation in its own right, but it’s of a form that, for whatever reasons of wiring or learned behavior, suits me well.

The next time you feel your own stressors pushed to the fraying point, with various threads threatening to snap and tear, shut down the electronics, think about a favorite song, find it in your streaming app of choice—or pull out the CD or vinyl for an extra hit of tactile, earthbound connection—and sit and listen. With not just both ears, but every part of you. You might just find it as effective as I do.

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    - MARCUS AURELIUS

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