Stress is a killer. Living in the modern world means living an ongoing experience of stress. It’s so pervasive, in fact, it can be hard to remember what it feels like to be calm and at peace. We get moments when we’re lucky enough to get in a vacation, a workout, or time outside, but we may go days without pausing or slowing down enough to reset our nervous systems.
According to the American Institute of Stress, job stress is far and away the biggest source of stress for American adults. Turning to alcohol or drugs is a common way people cope with stress, and while this may offer some temporary relief away from work, substance use can lead to additional issues such as depression or even dependency over time. Many employers also test for drugs, making them a risky option in more ways than one.
Healthier recommendations for combating stress usually involve getting exercise, eating well, and sleeping enough, but in a work environment stress often needs to be addressed in the moment. You can’t always go for a run or take a nap at work, so here are five stress-reducing activities you can do while sitting at your desk.
1. Breathe Deeply
There are many things we take for granted; the simple act of breathing is one of them. Your mind, body, and breath are intimately connected, and your breath serves as a regulator for your nervous system. When you don’t breathe deeply enough, you send signals to your brain that cause stress. Thinking about stressful thoughts or experiencing stress in your day triggers the body’s ancient fight-or-flight response, and a byproduct of this is shallow and rapid breathing. It’s essential that you pay attention to your breathing throughout your day to prevent you from staying in a stressful place.
Try it now: Take a big, deep breath so that you get air into the deepest part of your lungs. You should almost feel like it’s in your stomach. Do this at least three times and notice how you feel.
2. Take an ‘Awe Pause’
When you were young, you experienced a sense of awe all the time because everything was new. You weren’t stressed out about the day-to-day responsibilities you have now. Awe is an essential part of your well-being, and practicing moments of it can reduce stress. What is awe, exactly? It’s the feeling we get when we’re in the presence of (or witness) something larger than ourselves, something that challenges our usual way of seeing the world. We even have evidence that a sense of awe can combat negative emotions and reduce stress. You don’t have to go outside to experience awe; you can simply watch a video and experience the same stress-reducing results.
Try it now: Watch this video to generate a feeling of awe. Put it in full-screen mode, take a moment of pause, and let yourself be moved.
3. Listen to Soothing Music
Many of us habitually turn on the news or go online to read about what’s happening in the world. It’s important to keep up with what’s going on, but being infused with negative images and stories can take a toll on the mind and body, creating higher levels of stress. Interrupting that pattern with pleasant sounds or music can reduce stress levels by shifting mood and perception.
Try it now: Take a music break by plugging into your smartphone or computer. Listen to something soothing, such as nature sounds, meditation music, or even music designed for sleep. Here is a sample of some music with the added benefit of nature photography.
You may not think of connection as a way to relieve stress, but human connection can calm the nervous system.
4. Make a Call
You may not think of connection as a way to relieve stress, but human connection can calm the nervous system. As human beings, we are wired for connection. If you think of an infant and a caregiver, the caregiver’s presence, voice, and touch are what ultimately help the baby to feel soothed. We can get the same regulation from a close friend or partner, even as adults.
Try it now: Take a quick break to call someone you feel connected to. Pick someone you feel calm around, who brings you a sense of peace. Just a quick call to say hello can refocus your mind and center you in a place of less stress. If this option isn’t available, taking a moment to connect with a coworker can offer the same benefits.
5. Practice Gratitude
Having an attitude of gratitude is good for the soul and body. Shifting your mind-set from stressful thoughts to thoughts of why you’re grateful is a quick and easy way to de-stress. It’s a simple practice you can do at any time and as often as you want. If you have trouble thinking of things to be grateful for, think about what your life would be like without certain people or privileges. If you hate your job, be grateful that you have one.
Try it now: Take out a sheet of paper (writing by hand is ideal) and list three to five things you’re grateful for. Do this as often as you need to; it’s a powerful mood shifter.
It’s true that the rapid growth of technology has pulled us away from the natural world and our ability to self-soothe, so we might as well learn to use that same technology to ease stress whenever possible. Take advantage of your connection to the web, make sure to take stress breaks throughout the day using the above techniques, and of course maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle away from work.
- The American Institute of Stress. (n.d.). Workplace Stress. Retrieved from http://www.stress.org/workplace-stress
- Piff, P.K, Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D.M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25984788
- Thoma, M., La Marca, R., Bronnimann, R., Finkel, L., Ehlert, U., & Nater, U. (2013). The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response. PLOS One. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3734071
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