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Here's How We Cope When We're Stressed: Ideas From NPR's Arts Desk

What helps you feel better when life is stressful and scary?

We asked members of the NPR Arts Desk, and their answers include a Norwegian knitting marathon, America's Next Top Model, British crime dramas and peanut soup.

Find 17 tried-and-true ideas below and stay tuned to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast for an episode about this very topic.

Model and television show host Tyra Banks poses with the cast members from <em>America's Next Top Model</em> at Madison Square Garden in New York City in May 2007.
Evan Agostini / Getty Images
Model and television show host Tyra Banks poses with the cast members from America's Next Top Model at Madison Square Garden in New York City in May 2007.

America's Next Top ModelI hesitate to truly recommend America's Next Top Model, because it is not good. But what I can promise is very low stakes. Rarely has the show resulted in a major career for anyone, so win or lose, mostly they're there to participate in the show itself. And while I might not be able to relate to living on a desert island, I can relate to not liking a picture of yourself or being in distress over a terrible haircut. I cannot tell a lie: It's one of my go-to comfort watches. (Available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube)
Linda Holmes, host, Pop Culture Happy Hour

A Room With A ViewHelena Bonham Carter's impressive hair extensions lead an all-star British cast that includes Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench and — this movie is so old — Daniel Day-Lewis as an awkward third-tier love interest. This 1985 adaptation of E.M. Forster's fabulous Edwardian novel maintains its author's decorous sensuality, particularly in a great all-male nude bathing scene that manages to be both riotously family friendly and also slyly cognizant of the author's (repressed) queerness. "This is not what we were led to expect!" Truer words were never spoken. (Available on Amazon Prime, GooglePlay, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube)
Neda Ulaby, reporter

What's Wrong With Secretary Kim?In times like these, I like to soothe myself with a soapy binge-watch. My aunts have included K-dramas in their self-care routines for years, so I recently decided to take the plunge. Now I can't stop watching What's Wrong With Secretary Kim?, a South Korean series that has a calming mix of humor, romance and addictive soap opera melodrama. Loyal secretary Kim Mi-so tells her narcissistic boss Lee Young-joon that she's quitting, which sets off a series of events that — of course — cause our leads to fall in love. Park Min-young and Park Seo-joon have electric chemistry, and what's better than watching two unbelievably beautiful people navigate ridiculous obstacles to eventually fall in love? (Available on Hulu)
— Jessica Reedy, producer, Pop Culture Happy Hour

"Route One" by Sigur Rós
You can turn to YouTube to watch people skateboard off rooftops, or you can turn to YouTube to travel 1,332 km around Iceland's Ring Road while Sigur Rós music plays — it's your choice, really. The latter will take you a mere 24 hours, a feat the band (with the help of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service) accomplished through the use of generative music software; basically, they fed stems of Sigur Rós songs to the software to generate an ever-changing new composition. Titled Route One, it's truly hypnotic; the visuals are gorgeous and it's easy to drop in and out while always hearing something new. Here are parts 1, 2 and 3.
Stephen Thompson, panelist, Pop Culture Happy Hour and NPR Music editor

"National Knitting Night"If 24 hours with Sigur Rós (see above) seems a tad ... long (you know, whatever), you can also spend a fraction of those 24 hours watching a bunch of good-natured Norwegians try to produce a sweater — "from sheep's back to human's back" — in something short of the world-record time. (That'd be 4 hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds, obviously.) It's called "National Knitting Night," available through NRK TV, and it's extraordinarily soothing company. And, when you think about it, kind of like sports!
Stephen Thompson, panelist, Pop Culture Happy Hour and NPR Music editor


Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
Romance is possibly the most supremely comforting genre of them all — it is a rock-ribbed rule that a romance must have a Happy Ever After, so no matter which way the roller coaster twists you, you know you'll come safely to a halt in the end. And Get a Life, Chloe Brown has plenty of twists and turns on the way to that happy ending. Chloe herself isn't the type of heroine you often see in romance novels — she's plus-size and dealing with serious chronic illness that Hibbert depicts with compassion and bone-aching realism. Chloe is also a computer nerd who loves to make lists, and after a near-miss car accident, she makes herself a "Get a Life" list. Will getting a life somehow involve her smokin' hot apartment superintendent "Red" Morgan, who has long red hair, a motorcycle, and is secretly a talented painter? YOU BET. Chloe and Red have chemistry that practically burns up the page, the supporting cast (including Chloe's sequel-bait sisters) are funny and well-rounded, and the conflicts and obstacles feel organic. This is one for the re-read pile.
Petra Mayer, editor, NPR Books

Parks and RecreationLately, I've been thinking a lot about Parks and Recreation and Amy Poehler's character, the indefatigable Leslie Knope. Knope is a well-meaning bureaucrat, though not always the brightest bulb — who fervently believes that the government of her small Indiana town could make things better for everybody. Unfortunately, she is surrounded by a hapless crew of oddballs who keep making that task tougher and tougher. Bingeing old Parks and Rec episodes not only gives you a look at ace performers like Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and Retta before they became superstars, it's also a wonderful comedy centered on a super dysfunctional work family trying to make government a little better. And who doesn't need a message like that today? (Available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube)
Eric Deggans, TV critic

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett
Not the band (though their "Naïve Melody (This Must Be The Place)" is a great song to listen to when you want to relax). No, these are a series of extended monologues by the British writer Alan Bennett, assayed by the likes of Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge, Eileen Atkins and Bennett himself. You can find them on YouTube. Bennett is basically a worn, warm cardigan in human form, and his monologues feature unreliable narrators talking themselves into tiny epiphanies in their front rooms. They're small and circumscribed but brilliantly specific and, often, bittersweet.
Glen Weldon, panelist, Pop Culture Happy Hour

Composer George Gershwin, pictured in July 1937.
/ AP
Composer George Gershwin, pictured in July 1937.

"Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin
In trying times, I always listen to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Its jolly rhythms and busy, beautiful variations on themes lift my spirits, absorb me out of present problems (as all great art is able to do), and take me back to my 8-year-old days in my parents' apartment on 103rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan: I would stand on a hassock, pencil in hand, and conduct our 78 rpm recording of Paul Whiteman And His Orchestra with Gershwin as piano soloist, performing the "Rhapsody." The feelings of power and pleasure in those moments come right back to me when I hear it in troubled times.
Susan Stamberg, special correspondent

"Brave Faces Everyone" by Spanish Love Songs
You know that scene in Burn After Reading where Brad Pitt is running on the treadmill with his headphones on and he's pumping his fists and you're supposed to think he's a jackass? Well, joke's on you; doing that actually rules and feels great — especially if you're listening to the latest Spanish Love Songs record Brave Faces Everyone. It's an absolutely thrilling album about facing imminent doom (the second best chorus goes: "Don't you know you were born to die poor, man"), the kind of doom that you can't quite run away from because it's everywhere, so you might as well pump your fists in the sky because it feels great — who cares if you look dumb.
— Andrew Limbong, reporter

British TV crime dramas
Not exactly calming, but great escapism. Happy Valley, Bodyguard, Broadchurch, Grantchester, Line of Duty. Gritty realism might be a stretch, but the sharp writing, flawed-but-endearing characters, plots, cheeky humor and all-around suspenseful atmosphere of these shows make it easy to slip into their worlds and stay there for hours — or at least until their final seasons. Always start at the beginning. (Happy Valley available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, YouTube; Bodyguard available on Netflix; Broadchurch available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, YouTube; Grantchester available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, PBS, YouTube; Line of Duty available on Acorn TV Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube.)
Elizabeth Blair, reporter

Old school real-time strategy games
You start with a town center and a villager or two. You send them off to build, or chop down trees, or farm, or mine ore, and gradually (the gradually is what makes it relaxing!) you can start building armies and navies and upgrading your town. You watch it all happen from above, and there's something incredibly peaceful about pulling back and seeing so many industrious little workers toiling away happily. (If you've spent any time in management, I don't need to tell you how joyous the sight of people just doing the damn jobs you told them to do can be.) Inevitably, because even pixelated humans are human, war comes — enemy troops descend on you, or you descend on your enemies. Some delight in this later stage of the game, as they relish the strategy and tactics of combat — but me, I'm happiest when a new game begins, and a tiny little dude with a tiny little wheelbarrow looks up at me expectantly, just wanting to be of use. (You can find games like Age of the Empires, Battle for Middle Earth and Starcraft on Steam.)
Glen Weldon, panelist, Pop Culture Happy Hour

The music from City of Angels, Golden Boy and Raisin
Broadway musicals nurtured me in my youth. Though I'm now an unrepentant Sondheimite, I fondly remember the scores of other composers and lyricists that kept me going between his shows — especially the jazzily obscure musicals that never seem to get revived these days. The glory of the Web is that they're all at your fingertips. Say, Cy (Sweet Charity) Coleman's swinging detective musical-noir in City of Angels, or the sultry stylings that the creators of Bye Bye Birdie fashioned for Sammy Davis Jr. in their boxing-ring musical Golden Boy. And I've a special sweet spot in my heart for the musical Raisin, based on Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, that premiered at Washington's Arena Stage and featured one of the the most delectable jazz scores I've ever heard.
— Bob Mondello, film critic

Sure, we all know Cheers, but that's its appeal — sometimes you want to go "Where everybody knows your name..." I return to it time and again for its recognizable sitcom tropes and familiar comedic rhythms — you'd be hard-pressed to find a show as packed with still-hilarious set-pieces and pingponging patter. Whether you tuned in each week from 1982 to 1993, or during reruns, or, now in a many-seasons-long binge, you'll come to care deeply about these Boston bar knuckleheads as your own surrogate family and friends. I can't think of anything more comforting than that. (Plus, once you hit the end of its 11 seasons, just keep going — with another 11 seasons of its spinoff, Frasier!) (Available on Amazon Prime, CBS, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix and YouTube)
Mike Katzif, producer, Pop Culture Happy Hour

West African Peanut Soup
I was in college when Mark Bittman posted this recipe for West African chicken stew. I cooked pretty much everything he wrote back then, and while most recipes have faded in my memory this one stuck because it is magic. I cannot explain why this combination of things you likely already have in your kitchen (peanut butter, garlic, a can of tomatoes, a chicken thigh in the back of your freezer, maybe?) and a few fresh veggies (kale, sweet potatoes) has become one of my all time favorite comfort meals, but it has. I make this soup when people are sick, or are having babies. I make it when the news is scary. I make it when the kale looks nice at the farmer's market. I make it when I just have nothing else to do. It's gluten- and dairy-free, so it works for a variety of diets and restrictions. (I'm sure you could make it vegetarian – just leave out the chicken. Maybe add some chickpeas.) It feels healthy and it comes together fast. When I made it yesterday, I didn't have peanuts, and I used Japanese white sweet potatoes and added fish sauce. Go crazy!
Rose Friedman, editor

Graveyard KeeperReally, any farming-type simulator game will do here — Stardew Valley, granddaddy of them all Harvest Moon, even Minecraft, if the occasional zombie or spider doesn't stress you out too much, and you like mining as much as farming — as long as it's got soothingly repetitive action and lulling music. Plant endless crops? Yes! Dig lots of holes? Yes! Befriend local villagers? A thousand times yes! But what if you want that sweet, sweet farming sim action, and the times are just too grim to truly enjoy bringing endless sacks of flour to the Harvest Sprites? My friends, you need Graveyard Keeper. You play as the maintenance man for a Medievalish graveyard, clearing stumps and weeds, improving your land, prettifying the graves, building relationships with the locals — all the activities common to farming sims. But also, you might be turning the regularly delivered bodies into mystery meat to sell at the tavern, and staging witch-burnings to get in good with the local inquisitor (while making a profit off mystery meat burgers you sell to the crowds). Fair warning — there are long periods in Graveyard Keeper where you're just grinding to get to the next level. But sometimes, that's what you need to make the real world go away. And the music is really soothing. (Available on Steam, Xbox and Switch)
Petra Mayer, editor, NPR Books

The Art of Solitude by Stephen Batchelor
I can't think of a better time to read about how artists and writers have approached the idea of solitude — a concept that can range from loneliness to ecstasy. In this short book (or audiobook), Batchelor, a longtime Buddhist teacher, mixes in his own stories of being alone and at ease.
Ted Robbins, editor

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