As the title of the book suggests, this is a book for people seeking practical solutions to reducing their stress. To give a thorough review of this book, I felt that reading alone wouldn’t be sufficient to access its effectiveness. I wanted to try the techniques out on someone with high levels of stress. My husband, John, agreed to be my “test subject”. John works as a consultant in the architectural industry. He is currently consulting on a project for which the building plans need to be issued in the next few days. His position requires him to respond to any technical queries from the team as they arise, to train team members on challenging software that has a steep learning curve and to help bring the project in on time. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, all technical support he provides has to be done remotely. This adds an extra layer of stress to an already demanding role.
I set out the process that John followed and note the comments at each step of the process, below.
How You React to Stress (Chapter 1)
Understanding how we react to stress is useful in understanding why we feel stressed and realising that it is a natural, even useful, response by the body. The chapter contains three exercises. John completed two of these, but we both felt that The Schedule of Recent Experience is an exercise best avoided. Quantifying the amount of stress you experienced over a year and “posting it where you and your family can see it easily” as suggested under the heading “Prevention”, felt counter-productive. The aim of stress management is to assess the now, make changes as necessary and look to the future. Seeing your stress levels from the past year as a numerical value as well as the odds of developing an illness due to your score, is not going to relieve stress. In fact, it will probably make you focus on your stress-related symptoms, however mild because the score could be seen as a prediction of inevitable illness.
John completed the Symptoms Checklist to determine which symptoms he would like to focus on. Anxiety, sleep-related issues and work stress scored the highest. He revisited the Symptoms Checklist after 7 days to reflect on the effectiveness of the stress reduction techniques, and noted that most of them reduced by at least half!
The Tactics for Coping with Stress Inventory was very revealing. John only had two non-constructive ways of dealing with stress, one of which I know is a herbal remedy for sleep. It was encouraging for John (and me) to see that he is correctly managing his stress for the most part.
The Symptom-Relief Effective chart is probably the most useful document in the whole book. As a coach I will rely on this to create a suggested treatment plan for my client with their input, adapting it to their preferences. With so many treatment options available it seems very likely that we will find the right combination of treatment techniques. John identified his main goals as 1) addressing anxiety related to deadlines and 2) managing his work stress. I think the inventory and checklist would be a very good addition to a pre-session pack for new coaching clients.
John wished to focus on how to change his thinking about stressful events so we moved straight on to two techniques that conditions the mind to different thinking.
Conditioning the mind: Relieving Worry and Anxiety (Chapter 13)
This chapter aims to teach skills that will reduce anxiety and worry. Many of the techniques involve visualisation exercises. Unfortunately, visualisation techniques are not suitable for John because he suffers from a condition called aphantasia where he is unable to see images in his mind’s eye. However, the technique of Labelling Thoughts combined with Distancing from Worry Thoughts worked incredibly well for him.
He chose to assign a colour, red, to the thoughts that brought on anxiety. After only one day of saying “thought” to unwanted thoughts and “red thought” to those which made him feel anxious, he noticed a change. He felt that unwanted thoughts seem to lose their power. This labelling technique also demonstrated to him that thoughts are a product of the mind and not a fact.
It has to be noted that we both felt that the suggestions of 1) thanking your mind for the worry thought, and 2) repeating the worrying thought over and over as ways of distancing yourself from worrying thoughts, seemed counter-intuitive and, just as the Schedule of Recent Experiences, could potentially lead to the negative thought having more power over you.
Conditioning the mind: Work-Stress Management (Chapter 18)
This chapter was the most specific to addressing John’s causes of stress. He followed the five steps and completed the exercises for the first three steps.
Step 1: By thinking about how he responds to work stressors John saw that a thought and a feeling is not the same thing.
Step 2: The self-contract exercise was an effective way to formulate a plan of action. It provided John with a sense of control over his work stress. He particularly enjoyed thinking about the reward.
Step 3: The coping statement which is to be used when you have no way of changing unwanted conditions, was worded oddly and difficult to complete.
Step 4: John frequently has to manage the conflict between his own workload and the needs of the team members. Learning to negotiate a compromise is a useful skill. The book suggests reading the chapter on “Assertive Training”. Step 8 “How to Avoid Manipulation” proved to be exactly what John needed. He is frequently on the “receiving end” of an assertive person’s requests, but now he has proven ways to push back. He would be able to use some of the examples verbatim.
Step 5: Step 5 lists tips for how to pace yourself at work. The first suggestion is to pay attention to your natural rhythms. John negotiated a reduced-hour contract for May and stipulated in the contract that he will only work in the afternoon. His natural circadian rhythms are such that he is more effective later in the day.
The exercises in this workbook definitely helped John and he even commented that “it’s a good book”. I am sure that in a coaching environment it will be an invaluable tool. It provides various options to treat many stress-related conditions. The trick would be to find ones that will be most effective for the individual. As can be seen from John’s experience he did not need to use all the techniques and when employing a specific technique, did not have to follow all the steps or complete all the exercises but still achieved great results.
I found the book very informative and practical. For instance, there are examples on how to complete the worksheets and many of the worksheets are downloadable from the publisher’s website.
In the first chapter, the authors quote the work of Lazarus and Folkman who state that stress consists of two parts: our assessment of the situation as dangerous or difficult and whether we have the resources to cope with the danger or difficulty we perceive. I think this workbook is a valuable resource to relieve feelings of helplessness both for coaching clients when they use the techniques, and also for me when used as a coaching tool and reference book.
*This blog post is based on the assignment I completed for Module 3 of my Integrated Resilience & Wellness Coaching studies.*