The long term stress that working professionals are experiencing in today’s environment is an epidemic that affects our population’s productivity, sense of fulfillment, and collective happiness. Individuals experiencing long term stress are more likely to be depressed, overweight, have an increased risk for certain cancers and diabetes, and suppress the ability for creative problem solving and making good decisions.
Stress is an evolutionary response that served us well by enabling our survival mechanisms when we had to hunt for our food and escape predators. Now that we sit in air conditioned offices with an abundance of food sources, the stress mechanisms are engaged by work, bosses, deadlines, financial issues, family, etc. and the sympathetic nervous system is not turned off after theses types of “threats” are gone. Let’s face it, the endless responsibilities of being an adult never go away and with today’s fast paced technological world, it is hard to escape our stress triggers, but relief is possible with inward changes.
When we are in the stressful mindset, it is hard to conceptualize that each of us has the internal ability to get out of the darkness, and most of us think that circumstances outside and around us need to change in order to feel more relaxed. Barbara Baron said, “Don’t wait for your feelings to change to take the action. Take the action and your feelings will change.” Though it does help in the relaxation response, taking action against your stress does not mean you must devote 30 minutes to quiet eyes-closed meditation or have a consistent yoga practice. It means that you start incorporating simple, easy, and brief meditative techniques that help ease the body and mind of stress. Our emotions feed our physiology and our physiology feeds our emotions, which means we can control stress levels by becoming mindful of our thoughts and our body, thus interrupting the cycle of stress by focusing on something as simple as the breath.
- meditate with your eyes open
- have a dialogue with your problem
- drink a cup of tea in the afternoon
- change your breathing pattern
- create a gratitude list
- drink coffee on an empty stomach
- eat lunch at your desk
- engage in office gossip
- send an email if you can walk to that person’s desk
- judge yourself for not feeling relief immediately
There are many types of meditation; the key is finding the variation that works for you. I like this meditation, which is actually a form of imagery, because you can do it with your eyes open or closed, which means that you can begin to engage the relaxation response when sitting on a conference call or in a meeting. The concept behind this Chinese mediation is that inhaling or breathing in chi/vital energy/spirit enlivens the mind and body.
Begin by delicately inhaling and exhaling through the nose, as if pulling silk from a cocoon. Imagine a place on the base of your spine where you see a light/energy/or a warm feeling. Imagine that the light/energy/warmth is ascending from base of spine up the middle of the back over the spinal column up to the top of the head into a spot in the middle of the eyes, to a point between the eyes in the middle of the forehead. Then imagine the energy/light descends from the forehead down the middle of the forehead, down the front of the body, around your bottom and back to the point on your spine. Continue to practice the breath and orbiting light until you feel calmer.
This is called the microcosm orbit because according to Chinese medicine, the human being is the microcosm of the universe. This exercise brings harmony to our body and minds, and reestablishes the harmony between the microcosm, ourselves and the universe beyond us.
Provide an outlet to thoughts that tend to be cyclical and negative, and allow the subconscious to come forward by tapping into inner knowing to find solutions rather than seeking external validation. To do this, you will literally have a conversation the person, issue, circumstance that is stressing you out. Allow the thoughts to flow freely without expectation. Whatever comes out is right; nothing is wrong.
For example, you may have a conversation with frustration over your team’s performance.
- You: Why is my team being so lazy and making so many mistakes?
- Team’s Performance: I don’t know what you are talking about!
- You: What do you mean you don’t know…….
Continue to write back and forth until you feel you have reached a resolution or gained a new understanding of your stress. If you get stuck, communicate the emotion you are feeling and see what the response is.
It is not news that the time between lunch and dinner can trigger a trip to the vending machine, which ultimately leads to sabotaging a day of healthy eating. The truth is, your body needs a little energy between the 3pm-5pm hours to help focus for the rest of the day and avoid overeating at night. Snack time is not only a great opportunity to avoid undermining your diet, it is an opportunity to incorporate an easy meditative practice with just a slight modification to your normal day.
By becoming mindful of our food, not only do we have a greater sense of appreciation, but we establish a mind body connection and create presence that helps to relieve stress. When we get our minds out of the past and out of the future, we are being present and generally the current moment is not that bad.
Make a cup of tea, and grab a snack (hopefully a whole food rather than processed). Bring it to your desk and sit comfortably. Bring the tea cup up to your nose and take notice of the way that the tea smells, how the heat enters your nostrils, what the cup feels like in your hand. Take notice of the origin of the tea and consider the people, time and resources that went into making your cup of tea. Take a sip of tea and hold the liquid in your mouth for a moment to really taste the flavor (be careful it isn’t too hot!). Notice how it feels in your mouth and as you swallow, how it feels going down your throat and into your stomach. Moving to your snack, create the same mindful awareness of what you are eating.
Did you ever notice what happens to your heartbeat and breath when you are running late for a meeting or someone yells at you? Your body responds to the emotional trigger in the same way it would if a lion was chasing you, by increasing the rate of your heart beat and quickening your breath so that you take shallow inhalations. On the flip side, when you are relaxed, you will notice that your heart beats at a steady pace and your breath is long and deep like that of a sleeping baby.
Most of the time you breath without concentrating on it, but when you bring awareness to the breath and begin to consciously slow it down, you can actually regulate your emotional stress (stress hormones drop and the relaxation response kicks in, thus lifting the fog of stress).
To do this, set your alarm for three times throughout your day when you know you are the most busy, and take notice of how you are breathing. To slow down the breath and begin to relax the nervous system, take a deep breath in through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Allow your belly to be loose and continue the cycle of breath until your breathing pattern has shifted.
Your morning experience is indicative of how you will perceive the rest of your day, so make sure to set yourself up for the kind of day you want. You can dramatically reduce stress by focusing on the all the wonderful and positive things in your life.
Studies have shown that people who appreciate what they have in this moment are the least stressed and the most happy. Creating a gratitude list is an effective and non-time consuming way of setting yourself up to feel appreciative of your life exactly as it is. Before turning on your computer in the morning, take out a notepad and for 5 minutes list everything you have to be grateful for. Include anything and everything that comes to mind from your delicious cup of coffee in hand, to your loving family, to the humming of the electricity in your office (hey, not everyone on this planet has the luxury of electricity!). Keep your list on your desk so you can see it throughout the day, toss it each night, and make a new list the next morning.
Coffee (in moderation) has many proven health benefits, but it is not a good choice for those of you trying to minimize stress or anxiety. In addition to stressing out adrenal glands, the liver, stomach, and kidneys, coffee can create a drop in your blood sugar which makes it hard to relax. So if you are unwilling to switch to tea (totally fine), make sure that you have food in your stomach to counter the stress effects that a low blood sugar creates.
It may seem like a counterintuitive thought, but taking a lunch break could actually help you get more work done and feel better about yourself, thus lowering your stress. Spend your lunch hour socializing with coworkers or clients because as humans we are social-beings that need human interaction to feel balanced. Laughing, offering advice, feeling heard, and receiving support are all social experiences that help reduce stress in the mind and body. We were not meant to stare at a computer screen all day, so if you give the mind a break, properly fuel the body, and exercise your social skills, you can set yourself up for a very productive afternoon!
Gossip is tempting, especially when the people around you are doing it and there is someone in the office that seemingly deserves it. But I encourage you to refrain from gossiping and chose to think of the person differently for the sake of your own well-being. When we engage in gossip, we create a separation from our Self and another person. And when we judge, it is because there is something within that feels incomplete. Both of these occurrences promote unrest and stress within in the emotional mind so it is to your benefit to find compassion or forgiveness for the person you want to speak badly about. Compassion and forgiveness are two mindful ways of thinking about others that will in turn make you feel kinder, gentler, and less wound up.
Changing your physiology changes your mood, so move around and get the blood circulating as often as you can to allow the body to relax and experience stress relief. By walking over to your co-worker’s desk rather than emailing not only do you move the energy around your body, you gain the social benefit of in-person communication.
Undoing the ways of thinking and being that got you into the state of stress takes time to untangle, so be patient with yourself. If the thought of doing all of the things above stresses you out, then pick one, do it for a week and see how it goes! You may find that you enjoy a meditative technique but you still feel stressed, so amp it up and try another one. And if you try a technique and you don’t like it, find one that resonates with you; this is all about finding the tools and frequency that are right for you.
Whatever you decide, do not judge yourself on progress or compare yourself to others because there is no competition. Stress management is a personal journey of seeking a better, more conscious way of living and you cannot achieve that by beating yourself up.
Calming the nervous system by engaging the parasympathetic response, lowers stress hormones, signals to the brain that it is ok to relax, and allows the body and mind to start functioning at a more optimal level. Finding ways to engage the parasympathetic nervous system while it work is the key to feeling in control of your life, increasing productivity, and leading happier and healthier lives.