How to Stay Calm During Periods of Workplace Stress

No matter how much you love your job, there are going to be times when you find yourself a little stressed out. Perhaps a big work project is due, or you’re scheduled to give a presentation, or you simply have too much to do and not enough time to get it done.

In fact, job pressure — defined as work overload, co-worker tension, or a bad boss — is the number one source of stress in our lives, according to a 2014 report by the American Psychological Association.

Heidi Hanna knows about all that. As executive director of the American Institute of Stress and the author of Stressaholic (Wiley, 2013), Hanna has spent her career studying the different types of stress and how we react to them. And she has some advice not just for how to cope with workplace stress, but how to increase your capacity to handle that stress.

“Ultimately, stress is what happens in the gap between what’s demanded of us and our capacity to deal with it,” Hanna says. “If we can reduce the demand, that’s great. But often in the workplace, we don’t have control over those demands, so that’s when we need to focus on strategies that will help us be more resilient.”

The following short- and long-term strategies can help boost your stress capacity.

1. Take at least one short break during the day.

A few years ago, researchers from the universities of California and Texas studied the impact on five workplaces of having employees take one 15-minute break during the day. They found that the breaks reduced stress, enhanced workplace social interaction, and raised awareness around healthy activities. If a 15-minute break isn’t possible, Hanna recommends several 3- to 5-minute “microbreaks” throughout the day to recharge your brain and boost your energy.

2. Go for a short walk or watch a funny video.

Nature and laughter have powerful stress-reducing benefits, Hanna says. “Try to get outside for some fresh air, go for a walk, or watch a funny video,” she says. “Even though this won’t solve any problems, it can put your brain in a better state so we aren’t as impacted by the wear and tear of the stress.”

3. Nourish your work friendships.

Research shows that boosting social interactions is critically important for your mental and physical health. What’s more, people who have at least one close friend at work are more likely to be engaged in the workplace. “One of the challenges at work is that we often feel like we don’t have enough time to get it all done, so we don’t want to spend time doing things that aren’t absolutely necessary,” Hanna says. But grabbing coffee with a colleague or popping in to a friend’s office to chat has important stress-reducing benefits. Just so long as you don’t spend all your time grousing about how much you have to do or how much you hate your boss.

4. Don’t skip lunch — and don’t eat at your desk.

Keeping your blood sugar stable throughout the day will go a long way toward keeping stress in check, Hanna says. “Make sure you’re eating in a way that nourishes your brain, not just getting good nutrients but slowing down, being mindful, and not eating at our desks, which can trigger stress hormones,” she says. Research has shown that an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet, can also reduce stress and lower your risk for depression.

5. Move more.

“Sitting for long periods of time is inflammatory and stressful,” Hanna says. “That’s one of the reasons why Fitbit devices are so helpful, because they help people become aware of their lack of movement throughout the day.” In fact, studies show that sitting all day can increase your risk for anxiety. So even if you exercise regularly, make sure you stand up regularly, if just to get your blood flowing.

6. When all else fails, try some deep breathing.

On those days when back-to-back meetings and pressing deadlines make even the occasional break impossible, a few minutes of deep breathing can tamp down those stress hormones, at least for a bit, Hanna says. Just take a deep breathe in through your nose, then breathe out through your mouth. In a minute or two, you should feel your brain and body start to relax — at least enough to get through the next few hours of the day.

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