3 Methods for Dealing with Stress at Work
A few years into my career, I realized I was like that frog in the story. Not the “Princess and the Frog” — the story where the frog doesn’t jump out of the pot as it slowly heats to a boil. That was me.
The daily grind of corporate America had acclimated me to a level of stress that I’m pretty sure every health practitioner I know would warn me about. Fortunately, they did warn me, and little by little, their advice has helped settle me into a sea of calm — most of the time. And while their insights haven’t stopped the hurricanes from slamming into me — I definitely get buffeted by the storm — I find the impact is reduced and I recover more quickly.
Here are some insights I’ve learned to help me quickly find calm in the chaos and stress of professional life.
#1: Breathe and notice
If I had a quarter for every time I’ve been told to take a deep breath, I wouldn’t need a job! I mostly rolled my eyes at this advice until my physical therapist started outlining physical ailments linked to shallow breathing (it’s a very, very long list). If you work at a desk, travel on a plane, or use a smartphone, it’s likely that your posture ensures shallow, stressed-out breathing.
Taking a few deep, slow breaths signals to your nervous system that everything is okay — that there’s no need for “fight or flight.” You’ll flood your body with oxygen, and calm your heart rate. It brings your mind and body into the present moment, where most likely a tiger isn’t chasing you down.
There are a lot of breathing techniques out there, and any one of them will help calm you during the day. Notice your breathing in the car, when you walk into the office, as you stand in line at Starbucks.
As you breathe, make a point to notice where you’re holding tension and relax it. Then relax it some more on the next breath. You can afford to do this regularly — it might help to intentionally breathe like this every time you sit down, stand up, grab a cup of coffee, or visit the restroom.
To go deeper into the present moment, take note of the things around you: the sunlight bouncing off waving leaves, the swishing grind of the coffee machines and bubbling froth of the milk, the crunch of parking lot gravel under your feet.
Noticing these things calms your mind and body so you can be more attentive, present, and focused. And if you do this even once a day, over time you’ll naturally have more peace as you walk through your office door.
#2: Take a break
My sister is a doctor. When I told her I kept getting bladder infections, she began to wonder. After a short conversation, she learned that I didn’t think I had time to take a break at work, so I would go all day before I’d visit the restroom!
When she visited my office, she was flabbergasted. The ladies’ room was literally 25 feet from my desk. I’m a bright girl, but hearing her almost shout, “But it’s right there!” snapped something in my brain. It’s right there. What is wrong with me that I wouldn’t just give myself three minutes to use the restroom?!
Maybe that’s TMI (totally fair if you think I have a screw loose). But the point is that we ALWAYS have time to take a break. Even if you’re a normal person who actually takes bio breaks, I bet you could give yourself a little fresh air a lot more often.
Standing desks are all the rage, but even If you haven’t dropped the $5,000 for a hydraulic work surface or an iWatch that tells you to stand, I bet you can remember to just do it on your own.
Better yet, take a walk — outside. If you need to connect with a colleague, walk and talk outside. Walk down the street to buy lunch, even if you’re eating at your desk. Give yourself a mental and physical break for 15 minutes. (Okay, just make it five if that’s easier to wrap your head around!) Your brain and body will serve you better in the short- and long-term.
While you’re on your break, you might consider adopting a simple practice of prayer — it has proven mental health benefits. A prayer practice could be as small as listing things you’re grateful for, or including God in an inner dialogue. The repetition of a simple phrase can call the mind to God, or there are myriad ways to pray without words.
Prayer is an effective way to deal with stress because it widens your perspective to an eternal reality that never changes: God’s unending and unconditional love for you. When our identities are anchored in this reality, it puts things into perspective. It releases the pressure that we need to perform to have value, and it gives us true freedom.
#3: Do what you love
Or, love what you do. Right now.
If you don’t think you’re in your dream job yet, how can you enjoy where you are right now? There is something to be said for doing what you love. People who find their passion and calling don’t ever work.
Finding that job that lights you up can be a lifelong pursuit — I’ve been trying to do it for years, but it keeps eluding me. Recently, though, several incidents have made me realize that I can just love what I do. Part of it is simply about finding joy in the moment. It’s there, if you have the eyes to see it.
I was talking with friends I’ve worked with for years, and as we reminisced, we said, “You know, those were the days.” They really were. We didn’t appreciate it at the time, but despite the long hours and difficult clients, our team made that era in our lives truly uplifting and joyous in a way that we can only appreciate years later.
So whether you work (like me!) or do something you love, you can love what you do. There are gifts present in whatever you’re doing. Just take time every day to notice them.
And if you’re in a season of life where you’re struggling to find what you love, or to love what you do, you can find options outside of work to invest in activities that bring you joy. You know, like hobbies. A hobby might seem frivolous, but it has a very practical purpose. It fills your body with a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters that are essential to living a long, healthy, happy life. It quite literally signals to your body that life is good.
For some, it’s difficult to give yourself momentary pleasures. Maybe you don’t think you deserve it. Maybe you don’t think you’ve worked hard enough to earn the pleasure points. Maybe you just don’t think you have the time.
Well, you do have the time, and you can’t afford to forego pleasures in your life. You’ll work better, sleep better, and just enjoy life better when you let yourself do things you love.
And, take note: having two or three drinks a night is not the same thing as doing things you love. Unfortunately, we now know there is truly no health benefit to alcohol. (Yes, even wine. I know — it’s a real tragedy.) I am by no means a teetotaler, and if meeting up with friends is your jam, by all means imbibe while you connect.
But when people talk about doing what you love, they mean things that make you more you — taking up a hobby, joining a book club, gardening, enjoying a long bath, fishing, birdwatching, dancing, playing pick-up basketball. You get bonus points for things that involve community while feeding your soul. There is something mysterious about feeling connected that provides health and longevity.
If all else fails and you can’t breathe, take a break, or find a happy moment during the day, at the very least smile. Besides the spiritual and psychological belief that smiling is good for the soul, it has scientifically been shown to be good for the body. When the muscles in your face contort into a smile, it signals to your body that all is well. It literally changes your body chemistry. So cool, right?!
So in your car, in the elevator, in the bathroom (because you’re now going there at some point during the day), just smile for a moment. It will make you feel calmer, relax those muscles in your neck, and make you happier.