Along with death and taxes, stress seems to be an unavoidable component of life.
Right now, I am in the midst of orchestrating a cross-country move and purchasing my first home, and will soon be starting a new job. And I’m sure it takes very little reflection on your part to rattle off a long list of your own personal stressors.
Whether it’s related to work, home, health, family or something else entirely, it can feel like life just doesn’t give you a break. And research has shown that stress does more than just keep us up at night. We now know that stress is bad for our wellbeing, increasing the risk of a variety of health issues from heart disease to headaches, not to mention wreaking havoc on our emotional lives.
But despite knowing that we would be better off if we could dial back the pressure, it is easy to feel swept away, finding ourselves drowning in a sea of stressful triggers. It was thus with great interest that I read 10 Steps to Mastering Stress: A Lifestyle Approach by David Barlow, Ronald Rapee, and Sarah Perini. This sounded like something I could use.
The cover promises a practical approach to learning how to “reduce stress and improve wellbeing,” and the authors address the physical, mental, and behavioral components of stress. The book is divided, logically enough, into 10 chapters, each with a particular objective. For example, the goal of the first chapter is to begin to understand your stress, charting it over time and looking for triggers.
The authors begin each chapter with background information, in the first focusing on the causes and consequences of stress. This provides a logical framework for the exercises that are to come. They then describe a particular tool or technique to implement. In the first chapter, it is keeping what they call a daily stress record, in which you rate your average stress and highest stress each day as well as listing the anxiety-provoking events you encounter. They include examples, sharing the stress records of four individuals whose stories are used as case studies throughout the book.
While this first chapter focuses on the mental components of stress, its triggers and rhythms, the second looks specifically at its physical manifestations and provides readers with relaxation exercises. Other sections focus on behavioral responses to stress, such as avoidance.
Each chapter ends with a list of tasks as well as a summary of the main take-home points, making the text very user-friendly. The book will be of interest both to those who sometimes feel overwhelmed by their life’s own tensions as well as to clinicians working with clients on managing stress.
Personally, I will be recommending it to my mom, who always seems to be going at least 17 directions at once. On a quiet day.
The authors know of what they speak, drawing on over three decades of research at their various academic centers both in the US and Australia. They establish realistic expectations, admonishing the reader in the introduction that this book will not provide a “quick fix,” nor will it have a significant effect for those who merely read the text. Rather, it will make a difference for those who actively engage in the outlined tasks over a number of weeks.
The book might be better titled 10 Steps for Managing Stressful Life Events, but that probably wouldn’t sell as well. The authors are forthright about that fact, noting that the book will “help you deal with your reaction to these [stressful] situations, so that stress does not control your life,” rather than help you eliminate the causes of stress entirely.
That said, the latter portion of the book does focus on skills that may actually help reduce the number of tension-inducing situations you encounter. Tips here help you focus on assertiveness so that you have the wherewithal to say “no,” and help you learn how not to add “just one more thing” to your already overloaded plate.
Those well-versed in relaxation and stress management practices will find these techniques familiar. What this text does well is to present a series of skills and approaches in a logical, stepwise manner. The book relies heavily on keeping records, which can be helpful both as a way to mark progress as well as to keep you focused on making change — though keeping records can at the same time feel daunting, particularly if you already feel like you are dealing with more than you can handle.
The authors recognize this, and are encouraging, but honest, reminding readers that time spent now will pay off significant dividends later. Indeed, while life may be busy, filled with events beyond our control, this book offers a proven approach to managing — if not mastering — stress in order to improve wellbeing.
10 Steps to Mastering Stress: A Lifestyle Approach
Oxford University Press, March, 2014
Paperback, 144 pages