Not all stress is bad.
Stress can help you perform better and work harder both in the workplace and elsewhere. But sometimes too much of even “good” stress can be overwhelming and lead to fantasies of curling into the fetal position under the desk, familiarizing co-workers with a specific finger or simply walking out the door forever.
But you don’t have to let it come to that. These tips will help you find calm, focus and even a little happiness during your most stressful workplace moments.
While stress is universal, the triggers or catalysts differ depending on factors such as personal history, work dynamics and temperament, says Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist based in New York City. “With some self-reflection and closer examination, an individual may identify consistent themes and dynamics that stress them out or trigger them — particularly if they are reminiscent of previous experiences.”
In other words, the more conscious you are about your psychology, the better you’ll be able to differentiate past from present. This helps ensure your response is commensurate with the challenge, which helps you control your stress response.
With the ubiquity of technology and the increasing (and necessary) work-from-home culture, the boundary between work and home is becoming more fluid, Dorfman says. “What feels like a quick email on a Saturday or a harmless late night project completion eventually mount into feelings of stress and burnout,” she says. “It’s critical to set parameters and space between work and home — even if they exist in the same place.”
Designating times, places and rituals which differentiate work from non-work activities can be helpful.
— Time: Determine specific work hours and adhere to them. For example, if your workday ends at 6 p.m., stop working then. You can program an automated reply on your work email.
— Place: Even if you don’t have a separate room for working, identify specific and separate spaces where you work. If you’re working from home, identify a specific table or chair that you use when you work. Avoid doing work from your bed or areas you associate with relaxation.
— Rituals: Engaging in certain rituals, like wearing work clothes on work days and non-work clothes on weekends and holidays may also delineate a boundary. When you’ve finished working for the day, change into different clothes that you associate with non-work related time.
Now and then, it’s good to mix up your routine to do your best work.
“If you have the flexibility to do something else, get into a task that’s going to take your attention away from whatever is frustrating you,” says David Reiss, a psychiatrist based in San Diego.
This can apply to co-workers too. Put aside that exasperating email thread. Take a break from that project you’ve been stewing over for the last few hours, and work on something else for a while.
It feels good to be nice, so Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” suggests doing a good deed to ease workplace frustrations. Feeling angry or frustrated can take a physical toll.
Ways to help include:
— Email a co-worker helpful information.
— Make an introduction (virtually or in real life).
— Lend a hand to whomever is changing the copier paper.
Slow down with mindful meditation.
For those moments when you feel swept in the current of deadlines, emails and phone calls — when you can barely tread water — try this technique called Instachill, from Victor Davich, author of “8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life.”
First, close your eyes and take a big breath in, and then sigh it out. Now relax, breathe naturally and locate where in your body you feel stressed. Focus on this spot, while allowing those muscles to move naturally. When another thought drifts into your head, gently return your focus to the stress spot, and stay there. After a few minutes, slowly open your eyes and note how you feel now — hopefully your head is higher above the water.
Meditation can be an effective approach to relieving stress and pain.
Ease shoulder tension.
Stretching moves your muscles, releases tension and shifts your focus to your breath. Try this move that Tara Stiles, founder of Strala Yoga, recommends:
With a slight bend in your elbows, stretch your arms in front of you. Wrap one arm over the other, hook your hands and inhale deeply as you lift your arms straight up over your head. Now exhale.
Added bonus: You can do this stretch while sitting at your desk.
Stretch your back and hamstrings too.
Stiles suggests another stretch: Simply stand straight with your chest open and your arms loose, and take a big breath in. Breathe out as you bend forward, over your legs, with your knees slightly bent. Sway slightly.
This stretch “gets the blood flowing to your head, so you feel more refreshed when you roll up to stand,” says Stiles, adding that while it’s a little more conspicuous than a seated move, “It’s nice for when you’re picking up a paper clip or something.”
Jump up and down, do jumping jacks at your desk or skip around the room, Rubin suggests. “There’s something very childlike and energetic about getting those feet off the ground,” she says. “And you will feel very goofy if other people can see you, so that will affect your mood as well.”
And if you’re not feeling particularly goofy?
Run up and down the stairs, or go for a 10-minute walk — preferably outside. “Moving around will boost your energy, but being in the sunlight will help even more,” says Rubin, pointing out that even on cloudy days, there’s more light outside than inside. “That in itself gives you a lift and helps your focus and mood.”
Ask yourself: Is this stress or abuse?
If you’re swimming in workplace anxiety, Reiss says it’s key to differentiate between stress and abuse. And the line between the two is not always clear, so consider chatting with a third party, such as a human resources staff person or a friend who can be objective and tell it to you straight. “If it’s harassment that’s disrupting your ability to work, then you have to take appropriately assertive, calm actions.”
Get some perspective.
If you’re miserable, look for another job, Reiss says. But if you’re facing typical workplace stress — frustrations, disappointments and personality conflicts — consider Reiss’ tough love: “That’s why they call it work. You don’t expect to go there and have fun,” he says. “You expect to go there and get paid.”
Try to solidify boundaries. Remember that your co-workers are not your family members, and when you leave your workplace each day, you should leave your work too. Focusing on the non-work aspects of your life, such as relationships and hobbies, will help you gain some perspective.
To recap, here are 12 tips to tame work stress:
— Not all stress is bad.
— Look within.
— Set parameters.
— Switch tasks.
— Help out.
— Slow down with mindful meditation.
— Ease shoulder tension.
— Stretch your back and hamstrings too.
— And if you’re not feeling particularly goofy?
— Ask yourself: Is this stress or abuse?
— Get some perspective.
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Update 07/13/20: This slideshow was previously published and has been updated with new information.