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June 7, 2024
By Karen Clark
A guide to stress management wins the BookLife Nonfiction Prize.
Sixteen-year-old Robyne Hanley-Dafoe’s car skidded off the deserted road and plunged through a blizzard into the icy waters of the Otonabee River. The car filled with water. Robyne gave herself up for dead. But she thought of her mother’s grief at losing her daughter, and the determination to escape gripped her. Somehow, she unbuckled her seatbelt, rolled down her window, got out of the sinking car, and struggled to the surface; somehow she found air where moments before there had been only rushing water. Miraculously, a voice was calling; a flashlight flickered. A stranger was risking his own life to save hers. Laying down two planks crosswise to distribute his weight, he inched onto the treacherous ice, threw her a chain, and pulled her to safety.
That teenage girl who narrowly escaped death is now an educator, writer, and resilience expert. In her self-help manual Stress Wisely, the winner of the 2023 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest (an annual competition for indie authors), she throws a lifeline to those who are drowning in anxiety in a world in which it seems there is never enough of anything for anyone—not enough safety, time, money, love, approval, validation, security, or belief in a future for ourselves or for the planet. Stress Wisely, which author and BookLife judge Michelle Johnson calls “a practical, accessible, and beautiful guide for the stressful times we are all living through now,” integrates autobiographical content with empathetic and informed advice. Hanley-Dafoe shows readers how to distribute the oppressive weight of stress so we don’t fall through the ice. Acknowledging that a stress-free life does not exist, she wants us to embrace it—at least some of it. 
First, instead of constantly trying to live up to others’ expectations, she advises readers to gain clarity on values and goals by ensuring they are in alignment with each other. In the book, Hanley-Dafoe recounts a heart-to-heart conversation with a weary and worn-down colleague. “ ‘How do I know what voice in my head is the real one I should listen to?’ ” the colleague asked. “I knew the answer to this one. The voice that is the most loving. Listen to that one.” 
However, she admits, things aren’t always so simple, and the answers don’t come easily. In Stress Wisely, Hanley-Dafoe also examines what she refers to as “wicked problems,” thorny dilemmas such as climate change and Covid that are “frustrating and feel insurmountable because they do not have straightforward solutions, require ongoing adapting, and have inherent complexity and ambiguity, and they also often rely on multiple stakeholders.”
Stress Wisely’s topics range from diet culture—the roots of which Hanley-Dafoe describes as “riddled with racism, prejudice, coercion, cruelty, abuse, oppression, and control”—to North American culture’s materialistic misconceptions about money. “Truth is, you will never have enough of what you do not need,” she declares in the book. “My gentle invitation is to set peace of mind as your highest goal and organize your life around that.”
Additionally, Stress Wisely addresses parents struggling to find time and energy to focus on the thing dearest to them: their relationships with their children. In the book, Hanley-Dafoe tells the story of arriving late for her eldest son’s basketball game. Afterwards, she congratulated him on his team’s victory. He smiled. “With zero ill will or malice, he asked me, ‘Have you ever been late for a keynote, a research meeting, to teach, or even a flight?’ ‘Absolutely not, Hunter. I can’t be late for those things.’ Hunter nodded, then with sadness in his eyes and his voice he said, ‘But you can be late for me?’ ”
Hanley-Dafoe admits that the exchange “was like being hit by an emotional two-by-four.” She promised her son that when she committed to one of his events, she would be present start to finish—a promise she has kept for the last four years. As Hanley-Dafoe tells BookLife, “Stressing wisely is really learning how to make what matters most, matter most.”