I received The Stress Less Workbook by Jonathan S. Abramowitz when I was recovering from a case of shingles — brought on, of course, by stress.
I’m clearly not alone in suffering the negative effects of stress. According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, 22 percent of Americans reported experiencing “extreme stress” in 2012, with 39 percent reporting that their stress level had increased over the past year.
Abramowitz, who serves as professor and associate chair of the department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, as well as director of the university’s Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic, is familiar with stress and its negative effects, ranging from mental and emotional symptoms such as trouble concentrating, chronic worry, and feeling overwhelmed, to physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and chronic pain. And, well, shingles.
Here, Abramowitz has provided a workbook full of surveys, checklists, and exercises to help the reader identify and mitigate stress symptoms, sources of stress, and reactions to stress in his or her life. Though I approached the book thinking that it couldn’t be as useful as in-person therapy, I found Abramowitz’s text to be pleasantly surprising: it truly helped.
The book is divided into three parts: part I explains stress and its positive and negative effects; part II guides the reader in reducing stress; and part III focuses on utilizing stress management techniques in day-to-day life.
Abramowitz begins with an explanation of the positive and negative effects of stress, and gives the reader checklists to determine how stress is affecting his or her body, mind, emotions, and behavior. Once the reader has a sense of the specific effects of stress on his or her system, Abramowitz identifies the “ABC’s of Stress”: the “Activating Event” (stressful situation), “Beliefs” (thoughts and perceptions), and “Consequences” (negative emotions and poor coping behaviors). He includes extensive lists of typically-stressful events and daily hassles, common stress-related thinking patterns (including black-and-white thinking and jumping to conclusions), and negative emotions (such as anxiety and anger). Abramowitz provides concise descriptions and examples to help the reader identify their most common thinking patterns and negative emotions.
In part II of the book, Abramowitz focuses on reducing stress, using detailed checklists and worksheets to help the reader learn problem solving, effective communication, time management, how to change stressful thinking, ways to relax the body and clear the mind, and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Each chapter is full of tips, action plans, and logs that are open-ended and allow the reader to tailor the worksheets to fit most situations.
Finally, part III teaches the reader how to manage stress in daily life, at work or school, in relationships and families, and during a crisis. The book concludes with suggestions for recognizing relapses into old behaviors and thinking styles, and guidance on when to seek professional help.
As I read, I decided to fill out the worksheets and to put Abramowitz’s ideas into action. I knew that the shingles I suffered from was a symptom of too much stress, and I wanted to take this opportunity to learn new ways of thinking and coping that would help me get and stay healthy.
While the worksheets in part I of the book mainly served to reinforce what I already knew (I’m stressed!), the worksheets in part II were truly life-changing. With Abramowitz’s detailed descriptions and questionnaires, I was able to identify thinking patterns and behaviors that I was so accustomed to, I didn’t realize they were creating stress in my life. I found myself able to apply new techniques in a variety of situations.
I also found myself better able to move through day-to-day stressors by using time-management techniques—as well as through much bigger stressors, by using the techniques for changing thinking patterns and relaxing the body and mind.
Previously, I had believed that therapy was the only way to dramatically reduce stress levels (and Abramowitz does state that sometimes professional help is needed). But after working through this book, I’ve found that there are countless ideas and techniques that I can learn and practice on my own that make a palpable difference in how I experience life.
Abramowitz tells the reader that to be successful in managing stress, “you’ll have to invest lots of time, effort, and hard work,” but states that in return, “reducing stress can improve your physical health…can improve your relationships with others as well as your work or school performance…[and can help you] develop more self-confidence and self-esteem and be more satisfied with life.”
The author is right. This workbook takes effort, but the results are well worth it.
The Stress Less Workbook: Simple Strategies to Relieve Pressure, Manage Commitments, and Minimize Conflicts
Guilford Press, 2012
Paperback, 326 pages