The Stress Less Workbook
Simple Strategies to Relieve Pressure, Manage Commitments, and Minimize Conflicts
By Jonathan S. Abramowitz
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2012 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
How Stressed Out Are You?
Austin seemed to have it all. He owned a profitable business, had a terrific family, and lived in a lovely home. But Austin was a perfectionist, and it was making him miserable. He would get to work at the crack of dawn and stay late into the night, but still never seemed to get enough done. On most days he had headaches, felt fatigued, and had difficulty concentrating. Austin got angry very easily. He would yell at his wife and kids so much that they stopped including him in family activities. Each day brought new frustrations. Nothing made Austin happy—not his business, not his family, not his new sports car, and certainly not himself. Then, when his wife began talking about separating, Austin realized that he was upsetting everyone who was important to him and risking everything he valued. He was suffering from too much stress and it was wrecking his life.
Sharon and her husband, Nick, were high school sweethearts. They settled in their hometown, got married, and had children. But when Nick's company transferred him to a new city, they had to move a very long way. That's when things started to go downhill for Sharon. She wasn't the same person she had been before the move. Her stomach felt queasy all the time. She didn't feel like eating or being intimate with Nick. She was tense and couldn't sleep well. And she worried a lot about making friends in her new city. She spent a lot of time by herself, often calling her old friends to complain about being so far away from her hometown. A few months later, Sharon noticed that her husband was enjoying his new job. And the kids were happy in their new school. But Sharon was missing out. Her stress had prevented her from getting on with her new life.
Austin and Sharon are not alone. In fact, everyone knows the feeling that we call "stress." Modern life, after all, is full of stressful events: pressures, frustrations, hassles, demands, deadlines, aggravations, annoyances, interruptions, and the like. Stressful events vary tremendously from minor irritations to major life-changing experiences. You're late for an important meeting. The car won't start. You're having trouble at work. You fail an exam or bomb an important assignment. You argue with a close friend or relative. You separate or divorce from a romantic partner. Someone you love is very ill or even dying.
Although we usually think of negative events as creating stress, stress can also occur when positive events have a major impact on you. For example, you start a new job, get promoted, get married, have a new baby, or win an important award. The Eye Opener below lists the most stressful events according to research studies.
Feelings of stress vary in their intensity from a brief, almost fleeting flash, to constant worrying, to all-out panic. For some people, stress is so chronic that it becomes a way of life. If you frequently find yourself feeling tense, overwhelmed, and frazzled, it's time you took action. It turns out that learning and practicing some straightforward skills and techniques is the key to managing stress so that stress doesn't end up managing you. But as you'll see, stress is complex. It's multifaceted. And not surprisingly, it affects everyone a little differently. So, successfully managing your own stress begins with understanding what it is, how it's affecting you, and what you can do about it. And that's just what we'll do to start things off in this workbook. Noted stress researcher Hans Selye once said that stress is "too well known and too little understood." So, in this first chapter, we'll begin by examining your current stress levels and what's happening in your body when you feel stress. We'll also explore why you have stress in the first place—and some of this might surprise you.
HOW STRESSED ARE YOU?
To determine your current stress level, fill out the Perceived Stress Scale on the facing page. This is a scale you'll want to complete every month or so to monitor how you're doing with reducing stress; so you might make copies for future use. For each question, mark an "X" next to the number that corresponds to how often you have each thought or feeling. You'll get the most benefit from this exercise if you use a pencil or pen and write your answers down, rather than just thinking about them or "doing it in your head." There's something about writing that forces you to think more clearly and carefully about your answers.
Now, calculate your total score by adding up the numbers next to where you marked your "X" for each question (notice that for some of the questions the numbering is reversed). The highest possible score you can have is 40. Enter your score below:
Perceived Stress Scale Total Score = ________
What does your score mean? If your total score is 15 or less, either you haven't experienced too many stressful events lately or you're managing the pressures, demands, and hassles of everyday life reasonably well. If so, good for you! You'll find the techniques in this workbook helpful for perfecting your already well-honed stress-busting skills.
If your score is between 16 and 25, you're probably experiencing at least a moderate degree of stress in your life. Maybe you can manage your stressful circumstances some of the time; but at other times they get the best of you. Perhaps you've experienced some major life changes that have thrown you for a loop. Think about work (or school), your personal life and relationships, and your health—your stress is likely to come from these sources. Has life become very demanding? Does it seem like you don't have enough time to do everything you want to (or have to)? Luckily, you can use the strategies in this book to help you reduce much of the stress in your life and deal effectively with that which remains. Read on!
If your score is 26 or above, you're probably dealing with a great deal of stress on a daily basis. You might be having trouble managing important unpredictable or uncontrollable events in your life. Or perhaps it's that lots of everyday hassles and pressures are adding up and making you feel overwhelmed. You might feel tired and fatigued. Maybe your fuse is short these days. Life is probably less enjoyable than it has been—or could be. If so, to gain the upper hand and take charge, you should work through the exercises in this book thoughtfully and carefully—perhaps even with a professional. Problems such as anxiety, depression, and anger often accompany severe stress. In Chapter 2 we'll look at these issues more closely and determine whether it might be a good idea to seek professional help.
Finally, stress can be hard to perceive when you're right in the middle of it. It takes its toll on your mind and body before you even realize it's there. In Chapter 2 you'll learn about the longer-term cumulative effects of stress. So, even if your score on the preceding scale isn't very high, you'll want to read Chapter 2 before you decide that your stress level is lower than you thought when you picked up this book.
WHAT IS STRESS?
No matter what your score is on the Perceived Stress Scale, it's important to remember that everyone (yes, everyone) experiences at least some stress from time to time. Stress is universal—it occurs in all cultures around the world. It's a normal part of being human. But what exactly is stress? To gain the upper hand on this complex enemy you'll need to understand its workings.
The best way of thinking about stress is that it is the body's way of responding to events and situations that upset your balance or make you feel threatened in one way or another. In short, it's a state of readiness. When you sense danger—whether the danger is real or just imagined—your body automatically rises to the occasion and prepares you to take action and protect yourself.
A stressor, then, is any event, situation, condition, or demand that causes you stress by disrupting your life balance in some way. Life is full of challenges that may be considered stressors. In fact, you could think of any change in your regular lifestyle or routine as a stressor. Obvious examples include the events listed in the Eye Opener on page 8. Less-well-known examples include exposure to loud noise, extreme heat or cold, and personal issues such as questioning your core values, sense of purpose, or future plans. Your own illnesses and injuries also qualify as stressors, as do arguments with friends. As I mentioned before, even positive events—getting married, starting a new job, celebrating an important milestone or significant award—can be stressors. In Chapter 3, I'll help you identify your stressors—those situations that may be disrupting your balance and causing you to feel stress.
Perception Is Everything
How stressed out you feel at a given time depends on how much you perceive yourself as under the gun. If you view a particular stressor as only mildly or somewhat problematic, your stress level may only be low to moderate. But when you view it as catastrophic or overwhelming, or if you see yourself as being unable to cope, your level of stress skyrockets! So, being late to a lunch date with friends may trigger only a little stress. Being late for a business lunch with an important client triggers a whole lot more. We'll come back to this important point in Chapter 8. It turns out that since our thoughts and perceptions have so much to do with how much stress we experience, one important strategy for managing stress involves developing more useful ways of thinking about stressors.
What's Good about Stress?
Stress probably seems like something you could do without, right? It can feel very uncomfortable (perhaps painful). It can disrupt your relationships. It can lead to bad habits such as overeating and smoking. And it may ultimately make you more vulnerable to serious medical problems such as heart disease. But ask yourself this question: could stress ever be a good thing?
Yes, it can. Believe it or not, your stress response is actually a fundamentally helpful, adaptive, life-sustaining, even crucial system of your body. Having stress is neither a personal weakness nor a mental illness. Remember when I said stress is intended to get you ready to protect yourself from danger? Eons ago when humans lived in the wild with other animals (including predators), having an automatic response take over when danger arose—for instance, an approaching saber-toothed tiger—was critical to self-preservation. This stress response, often called the fight-or-flight response, prepares us instantly to either fight back or run for our lives. The fight-or-flight response is a dramatic series of changes that we'll explore more fully in the next section. This automatic response ensured that prehistoric humans would survive in an otherwise dangerous environment. Clearly it was beneficial to our forebears. But what has it done for us lately?
Stress in Modern Times
Despite the fact that our fiercest predators are no longer an ever-present threat, we still need our stress response from time to time. Imagine that you're crossing the street, but there's a car speeding toward you, blasting its horn. If you didn't have a stress response, you'd probably be killed! Luckily, however, your body's fight-or-flight response automatically takes over and pushes you out of harm's way.
Fortunately, in today's modern world, life-threatening stressors are relatively few and far between. Of course, we're not totally out of the woods—modern life still has its share of potentially dangerous situations. Depending on where you live, you might face a threat of violent crime, terrorist attacks, severe weather (such as hurricanes), or natural disasters (such as earthquakes). And occasionally we all hear about dangers associated with driving, swimming, and fire. For the most part, though, the near constant physical dangers of prehistoric times have been replaced by social and psychological stressors of modern life that come from work or school, relationships, finances, your health, and even daily life hassles.
These modern-day stressors may not pose the same kind of threat to life and limb as our ancestors faced, but your body doesn't know how to tell the difference. To your brain and the rest of your body, a threat is a threat. So, to be on the safe side, it reacts the same way it did when your ancestors faced life-threatening dangers. Just think of yourself taking an exam when it dawns on you that you studied the wrong material! As you look over the questions, you realize that you don't know the answers and will fail the test. In today's world, it's tests, traffic, relationships, computers and other machines, office politics, daily hassles, and the like that are most likely to trigger stress. Although generally less physically threatening than the dangers of old, these stressors still provoke the same intense response.
COMPONENTS OF THE STRESS RESPONSE
Your stress response is highly complex. In this chapter we'll deal with the immediate effects of stress—that is, what happens to your body right as you notice yourself becoming stressed out. In Chapter 2, you'll learn about how your body is affected by experiencing stress over the long term.
The immediate stress response is made up of three types of reactions, all of which are geared primarily to helping you cope with danger and keeping you out of harm's way. We're going to explore these three reactions in some detail because understanding exactly what's happening to you when you become stressed is an important step in taking charge of stress. The three reactions are:
Physical reactions, which can include sweating, greater muscle tension, nausea, an increased breathing rate, and a racing heart.
Mental reactions, which include a shift in attention and racing thoughts about the possible outcomes of a situation.
Behavioral reactions, which may include anger, hostility, perfectionism, and the urge to escape.
Physical Reactions to Stress
The physical component of stress is often the most noticeable, so let's start there. Check the box next to each of the physical reactions that you notice when you feel stressed:
 Increased breathing or difficulty catching your breath
 Racing or pounding heart
 Pain or discomfort in the chest or elsewhere
 Hot or cold flashes
 Dry mouth (less saliva)
 Nausea or stomach distress
 Loss of appetite
 Muscle tension
 Trembling or shaking
 Unsteadiness, dizziness, or feeling faint
 Numbness or tingling in your arms, fingers, legs, or toes
 Feelings of "unreality" or "derealization"
 Dilated pupils, leading to blurry vision or spots
Although these reactions sometimes feel very intense, uncontrollable, and uncomfortable (they might even seem very scary—like you're having a panic attack, losing control, or having a medical emergency), they are all part of your body's normal stress response. And your body knows what it's doing! Believe it or not, all of these physical sensations play a role in keeping you safe. Read on to find out how.
When you encounter a stressful situation and perceive danger or threat, your brain sends messages to a part of your nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system—which has two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches—is involved in directly controlling the body's energy levels and preparation for action. It's the sympathetic branch that releases energy and primes your body for action by causing the physical responses listed above. The parasympathetic branch, on the other hand, is responsible for restoring your body to a normal state (sometimes called the rest-and-digest response).
Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system releases two chemicals, adrenaline and noradrenaline, from the adrenal glands of the kidneys. Energized by these two chemicals, the stress response (and the related physical reactions) can continue for quite some time. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system increases your heart rate and strength of your heartbeat, your breathing rate, and blood flow throughout your body. This is important for survival because blood provides your muscles with the nutrients they might need to help you fight or run away from danger. Like a reflex, the sympathetic nervous system automatically directs blood away from places where it is not needed (such as your fingers and toes), by tightening the blood vessels, and toward places where it is needed more (such as the large muscles in your arms and legs), by expanding those blood vessels. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Stress Less Workbook by Jonathan S. Abramowitz. Copyright © 2012 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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