Stress Management Blog

Stress Monkeys

Imagine that you just asked me to draw a cartoon representing causes of stress. I quickly sketch two funny monkeys, grins spread ear to ear.

“How do monkeys represent causes of stress?” you ask.

Silently, I sketch more pictures: the monkeys on a man’s back, yanking his head as they fight one another; the man unloading his monkeys onto a second man’s back; five more monkeys jumping on the second man.

“But how do monkeys represent causes of stress?” you ask again, and I tell you about stress monkeys.

What Are Stress Monkeys?

Stress monkeys are causes of stress in the modern family, school, and workplace. Although stress monkeys are demanding in and of themselves, they only become causes of stress when they are not ours, or we can’t get them off our backs.


Mr. Smith has history tests to score – a monkey on his back – an unwelcome demand that must be “fed”. He tries to get away, having promised to take his wife to dinner, but the tests remain. The monkey becomes a small stress monkey, and Smith tosses it a banana by digging into the task. The monkey clings to his back.

Smith has completed only five tests when Mrs. Evans arrives, slipping a second monkey onto Smith’s back. It’s Evans’ monkey, a curriculum committee meeting, but she has to coach a soccer practice, and begs Smith to attend the meeting for her. Smith sighs, but gets up to attend the meeting – 2 causes of stress – 2 stress monkeys riding his back.

On his way to the meeting, Smith is stopped by the custodian, and then a school secretary, each of whom adds another stress monkey. He accepts each grudgingly, and stumbles into the meeting. He now has 4 stress monkeys on his back – 4 demands that are not going away – 4 causes of stress.

Although he is merely Evans’ substitute, Smith is chosen to chair a fund-raising committee. Over his protests, the huge monkey is hoisted onto his back.

It is late by the time the meeting ends, and Smith labors back to his classroom. One small monkey was replaced with a big monkey, the other three still cling firmly. All 4 stress monkeys are tearing at his head. He will have to take them home, since he can’t get any off his back now.

When Smith arrives home, his wife meets him at the door. Her car is making a terrible noise, she says, and he will have to fix it. Smith sighs, lets her put the fifth stress monkey on his back, and gets ready to go. But too many causes of stress cling to him now. He can’t eat. He can’t make conversation. He feels as though life is out of control.

How to Get Stress Monkeys off Your Back

Smith could have kept most of the stress monkeys off his back, if he had exercised his right to firmly, respectfully refuse. He should have recognized his limits, and declined all monkeys that were not his own. He could have reduced his causes of stress to two rather than six. Even those two stress monkeys might have been removed by delegating them to others.

Think about it. Many causes of stress – many stress monkeys – can be avoided altogether or delegated if we take firm action. Many causes of stress can be managed simply by keeping them where they belong.