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Developing Mastery over Stress

In this chapter, the authors present a variety of techniques to master stress so that you can thrive. These techniques address both the body and the mind. They begin with an examination of how to relax the body, focusing first on active relaxation. Active relaxation commences with proper breathing from the diaphragm. For the authors, this is an essential first-step on the path to stress mastery as it promotes calmness and a focus on the present.

Once the basic technique has been learned, one must cultivate awareness of his/her breathing patterns in order to use diaphragm breathing more regularly. Next, the authors discuss self-awareness, or the ability to gain some distance from our thoughts, feelings, and sensations in order to examine them. By assuming the witnessing stance, we can recognize that we have control over our reactions to situations. By observing situations from a distance, we can see the meaning that we give to these situations, and we can use this observation to change our attitudes and emotions.

Next, the authors talk about attitude. This concept is important because our attitudes about tasks impact our ability to successfully complete them. Suzanne Kobasa has studied coping skills and has discovered three attitudes, the Stress Hardiness Attitudes, which allow individuals to cope with stress: control, commitment, and challenge. Those who cope well with stress see themselves as being in control over their lives. This concept is the same as internal locus of control and proactivity, discussed earlier in the book.

Commitment indicates that an individual will persevere in order to accomplish his or her goals and that he/she believes that his or her actions are important. The concept of challenge relates to how an individual sees crises. Effective individuals will see crises as dangers that present opportunities. Being resistant to stress, or stress hardy, has been associated with greater physical and psychological health. More specifically with regards to the body, the authors discuss techniques to acquire body wisdom.

The authors note that how one holds one’s body and how one moves can have a strong impact on how one feels. They suggest adopting the warrior’s stance, with posture that is both relaxed and balanced. In order to achieve this state of relaxation, one must cultivate awareness of one’s own body. This awareness can be achieved through progressive relaxation, in which one contracts a muscle (in order to become aware of it) and then relaxes it. This process can be combined with breathing techniques, language, and imagination.

Meditation practices are also successful in reducing stress and increasing awareness of the present moment. In practicing meditation, it is important to maintain a non-judgmental attitude, patience, beginner’s mind (or child-like wonder of discovery), trust in yourself, passive attitude, acceptance, and letting go. The technique of meditation begins with choosing something, like breathing or a mantra, on which you can focus your concentration. This technique can extend to day-to-day activities, such as eating and thinking, through mindfulness.

The authors then discuss the importance of stretching muscles in order to reduce tension and stress. They emphasize the effectiveness of intuitive stretching, listening to your own body to see what it needs. Massage can also be effective in reducing muscle tension especially because touch can be healing. The authors then discuss how to improve the health-level of your lifestyle. This is important because the health of the body impacts the health of the mind. Exercise is a very important component of a healthy lifestyle, and it helps reduce stress levels.

Proper nutrition is likewise important as it decreases stress and increases stress resistance. In particular, the B vitamins and calcium have important roles in stress levels, and carbohydrate-rich foods allow the body to synthesize serotonin. Having strong social support systems is also effective for mastering stress. Research into this area indicates that an individual’s perception of the strength of his/her support system is the most important factor if its effectiveness.

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