HOW TO DEAL WITH STRESS AT WORK (AND BEYOND)
I spent my 20’s and early 30’s in a pretty stressful career and environment. Unfortunately, I hadn’t developed any healthy coping mechanisms other than excessive exercise, closet eating candy, and therapy (which I would more often than not skip for meetings). After barely a decade with my nose to the grindstone, I ended up overwhelmed, frazzled and burnt out by the ripe age of 32.
Whether or not you believe feeling overworked and overwhelmed is an expected part of building a successful career, healthier stress management is something we can all benefit from. Why? Chronic stress effects pretty much everything you can think of from digestion to immune function to weight management. It negatively impacts our energy levels, our sleep and moods. Chronic stress increases the rate at which we age, decreases sex drive and increases our risks of chronic disease, heart disease and more.
More often than not, we manage our stress through coping mechanisms that are detrimental to our health: we drink more alcohol, smoke cigarettes, use recreational and pharmaceutical drugs as a crutch. If you’re anything like I used to be, you might end up face down in a pile of cupcakes after a particularly rough week. Although carb comas and a nice wine buzz does the trick in the moment, they aren’t really helpful in terms of minimizing the damaging effects of stress. More importantly, the aforementioned coping mechanisms have a lot of unfortunate side effects of their own.
Unfortunately, stress is so woven into the fabric of our lives these days and it’s often unavoidable. We can’t control many of the variables that contribute to stress, but we can change how our brains and bodies react to it by choosing healthier coping mechanisms that minimize the detrimental effects without causing any harm. That is where the stress management tactics below come into play. You might not be able to fire your boss (or your kids) but you can reduce the stress they cause with these tactics:
RECLAIM THE FIRST 10 MINUTES OF YOUR MORNING: Instead of letting emails from your boss or politics on social media stress you out before you’re even fully awake, put your phone on airplane mode or leave it in another room overnight and reclaim the first 10 minutes of the day. Use that time to wake up mindfully, check in with yourself, maybe stretch a little and set an intention. Do something that makes you feel happy and healthy before you switch gears into go-go-go mode!
TRY A BODY SCAN: When you feel your emotions getting the best of you, sit down in a chair with your feet flat on the ground and close your eyes. Scan from head to toe, checking in with your body one area at a time. What’s happening behind your eyes, in your ears, your throat, your chest? Stick with non-judgmental observation and take deep, cleansing breaths along the way. Switching from ruminating to observation magically flips the switch from stressed to calm surprisingly quickly.
CARRY A SMALL JOURNAL: If you start to feel anxious or stressed out about a project, meeting or irritating colleague, plop down in a quiet space and take a few minutes to work it out on paper. Allow your initial reactions to flow onto the page, take a few deep breaths and reassess. You’ll often feel calmer and more rational after creating space for those emotions and allowing them to pass.
MEDITATE FOR 3 MINUTES: Meditation is an incredibly effective stress management tool that can be used anywhere, anytime and I’ve found it to be especially helpful with work-related stress. Pop your ear buds in and play a guided meditation right at your desk, find a drop-in room, or hide in the bathroom if you have to. You can drastically reduce your stress levels in as little as 2 minutes. I’ve been using Headspace for years and absolutely love it for it’s versatility and simplicity.
EAT LUNCH WITHOUT DISTRACTIONS: Give yourself, and your digestion, the gift of just doing one thing at a time, even if it’s for only 15 minutes. Put down your phone, walk away from your desk and find a place to eat that will allow you to be present and mindful during mealtime (bonus points for outside!). Use this as an opportunity to get lost in the experience of enjoying the colors, smell, taste and texture of your food. Doing so will shift activity out of the part of your brain responsible for fight or flight (and stress) and into the part of your brain responsible for rational thinking and feeling zen.
TRY A WALKING MEDITATION: This is an excellent stress management tool for workplace burnout. The combination of a guided meditation through an app like Headspace or Calm, plus gentle movement will help you calm down and shake off some of that tension you’ve been carrying around. You’re destined to return to the conference room or office more relaxed after even 5 minutes of walking meditation.
DO THE 5-4-3-2-1: The mechanism behind this magic exercise is similar to that in numbers 2 and 5: it’s biologically impossible to stress or spin out at the same time as using your senses for non-judgmental observation. Don’t believe me? Try this the next time your boss sends you a scathing email:
Name 5 things you can see (ex: green chair, red shoes, fuzzy dog)
Name 4 things you can hear (ex: rain falling, colleague talking too loud on a conference call)
Name 3 things you can feel (ex: my shirt on my skin; HVAC vent blowing on my face)
Name 2 things you can smell (ex: my assistant’s tuna fish sandwich, my partner’s body odor)
Name 1 thing you’re grateful for (ex: my kind-hearted husband)
EXPERIMENT WITH 4-7-8 BREATH WORK: This is an exercise often used to help people fall asleep when anxious or wired, but I find it works well anytime you’re stressed and need to chill out. Click here to see a quick video walking you through it.