Stress. It’s a buzzword these days, and we all experience it. Some more than others.
And yeah, there’s good stress. This is known as eustress and it helps you meet a deadline or moves you to take that extra step toward self-improvement.
But then there’s bad stress. This is known as chronic stress and it has you obsessing for weeks over that same deadline or ceaselessly driving yourself to a state of anxious distraction in that effort toward self-improvement.
The line between good stress and bad stress is frequently a blurry one.
That’s why you may not see when you’ve crossed that line. What’s worse, you may have even pulled up a comfy chair and invited stress to cross the line into your life. “Welcome, stress. Take a seat. Can I offer you a refreshing beverage? Would you like to take me hostage?”
It may seem like a funny scenario, but stress is serious. Especially the chronic stress that will take you – and your health – hostage. And the workplace is ripe with it. So maybe you’ve never asked yourself this – how much of this work place stress am I bringing on myself without realizing it? And if so, what can I do to alleviate it?
Here are some things to watch out for and some simple techniques to help you manage stress at work.
- You’re clenching your jaw, furrowing your brow, hunching your shoulders, etc.
Check it out. You might be doing it right now.
Stress will sneak into your muscles in the form of tension. The muscles are an excellent hiding place because most of us are so “in our heads” that we’re unaware of what we’re doing with our bodies. We only become aware when the tension stress starts showing up as headaches, neck and/or back pain and troubles with your jaw.
So what’s happening? You are actually creating discomfort and muscle pain by unconsciously or habitually tightening muscles and causing muscle spasms.
How to alleviate this: Well, first, take an inventory every so often. When you start to feel stress, do you tighten up? Notice where in your body. Give yourself “stretching breaks” throughout the day to help lessen the likelihood of your muscles tightening up. Consider some of these yoga poses either at the office, during your lunch break, or at the end of the day to unwind.
- You can’t remember the last time you allowed yourself an extended break.
Or if things have gotten really out of hand, you may not even remember the last time you took your lunch break. Unfortunately, our cranked up society’s never-ending chant of “go, go, go,” can leave you feeling guilty when every fiber of your being is crying “stop, stop, STOP.”
You’ve tricked yourself into believing that productivity is the best and only game in town.
It turns out though that our brains have two modes. There’s the “focused mode,” which you use when you’re actually doing stuff (i.e. your job) and the “diffuse mode,” which is that relaxed mode you use when you’re daydreaming or not thinking so hard. And while it seems that the focused mode is the more important one, scans show that brain activity actually increases when you’re in diffuse mode. If you’re in perpetual focused mode, you’re not giving your brain any play time and just adding to your stress.
How to alleviate this: You deserve to destress, so stop feeling guilty. Take a time out. Sit in your chair, close your eyes, pop in some earphones, find a meditation app, and by all means, drop the “go, go, go,” mantra for one that is more peaceful. Try dissolving 15 drops of lavender essential oil in 2 tablespoons of water and pour into a spray bottle to mist around yourself for some relaxation, as recommended by Dr. Tieraona Low Dog from Prevention. And/or sip on some tea with kava, an herb with soothing effects.
And if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking this sounds like just what the witch doctor ordered, go ahead. But keep in mind that, “stress can also slow wound healing, contribute to the reactivation of latent viruses, and increase vulnerability to viral infections,” says Keri Tuit, clinical psychologist at Yale University.
Speaking of which…
- You know you’re coming down with something, but keep charging ahead because you (think you) have superpowers.
Last week it was a cough. This week it’s a sore throat.
You’re quick to blame your coworker who’s hacking in the corner, or the bank teller who sneezed near you. But a reality check should dictate that you also look at your workload. Are you saying yes to too many projects? How many of your deadlines are actually self-imposed?
The stress hormone cortisol is helpful when we need it on a short-term basis. And that’s cool. “But if you’re stressed out constantly, these hormones can become depleted over time,” says Richard Colgan, MD, and author of Advice to the Healer. He adds that cortisol and other hormones are components of the immune system and when they are withdrawn, we become more susceptible to sickness.
How to alleviate this: Learn body language. Your body language. Your body gives you plenty of warnings when it’s overstressed. If you ignore these, the payback is illness. Don’t wait until you’re forced to heal. Make time for rest and extra sleep. Go home. Snuggle deep into your bed. Read a book or cue up a movie that’ll help you relax.
- Your workspace just got a part on Hoarders.
You’re thinking, who has the time to straighten their desk and organize their drawers when there are more pressing things to do? It’s a valid thought. You’ve got meetings and appointments and calls and a bunch of other stuff that seems super important. As such, having a cluttered workspace is yet another side effect of being constantly on the go. And a nasty one at that, because it’s rather difficult to employ stress-busting techniques such as deep breathing, stretching and meditation while in the midst of clutter. What you get instead is more mental stress.
How to alleviate this: Stay out ahead of the clutter. Try to establish a daily habit to file away the important papers that don’t need your immediate attention. Invest in some office gadgets like pen holders, drawer organizers and sticky pads. If your workplace supplies them, even better. Finally, incorporate the “take 5” initiative. When you can, take 5 extra minutes at the end of the day to straighten, tidy and organize. Your work day is bound to have less stress if you don’t walk into a war zone first thing every morning.
- You’re heading for that third donut.
Just to be clear – the sheer act of eating a donut does not cause chronic stress. (You’re welcome.)
But the act of stress eating does. So if you’re seeking stress relief from that donut – or anything with excessive sugar, salt and/or fat (the holy trifecta “comfort food group” on the nonexistent food triangle) – that relief will be temporary. The after effects of consuming junk food when you’re already experiencing chronic stress will be to further stress your already taxed internal workings. Your stomach, kidneys and liver honestly don’t want that third donut, no matter what your smooth talking tongue says.
How to alleviate this: It’s tough. Really tough. It takes will power, which you can’t buy anywhere. Not even online. And the office setting can be a denizen for those starchy, salty and sweet nuggets of temporary relief – unless you work for a natural food company. Do your best to steer clear of areas where you’ll be tempted. If you can, head for the door. Tell yourself repeatedly, “I’ve got this.” Take a mindful meditation walk. Or any kind of movement. Endorphins are great for kicking stress and restoring health to your body.
- The words you speak portray you as the perpetual victim.
Pay attention because this one is pretty dicey and gets right to the crux of just how much stress you may be creating for yourself.
Do you find yourself making any, or many, of these statements with regularity?
“I’m not making enough money to put up with this.”
“I am so under appreciated it’s ridiculous.”
“Our group gets no respect at all.”
“My boss is a complete whack job.”
“There’s way too much to do. Do they think I’m a robot?”
“I can’t deal with (name of coworker) and s/he’s making my life miserable.”
“Why bother? Management never listens or even cares!”
In work, just as in the rest of life, there will always be situations over which you have no control. But where you do have control is in how you respond to such situations. Self-defeating thinking and behavior are contributing factors to chronic stress.
How to alleviate this: Notice when you have negative thoughts or are singling yourself out. In other words, how often do you see yourself as a victim? Also notice how it feels on a physical level (muscles tighten, heart races, body courses with stress hormones). Awareness of unhealthy thinking and behaviors is the first step toward changing them. Step back and reevaluate your thoughts. Make peace with that annoying coworker. Change what you dislike about your job, and accept what you cannot. Keep a gratitude journal. Ditch the conspiracy theories. And if you’re still miserable after all of that, there’s the possibility that you really are in a toxic environment. You’re best bet in that case is to move on.
If your objective is to have less stress, give these techniques a try. But by all means, don’t stress about them.
One final disclaimer: Chronic stress can show up in different forms and in a myriad of ways. This list refers to workplace stress and is in no way intended to address the sort of chronic stress stemming from deep psychological issues, illness or trauma. These situations call for assessment and treatment by a professional.