Workplace stress is serious business. Many of us accept it as the norm (and even wear it like a badge of honor), but excessive worrying on the job can have far-reaching consequences — and not just at the office.
This chronic toxicity has the ability to permeate our lives, despite our best efforts to keep it confined to our work desks. So how exactly do we regain our sanity and take back our lives?
In order to effectively manage work stress, we need to look at three other areas of our lives: our physical health, our mental health, and our sense of perspective. By learning how to protect what work stress harms the most, we can keep ourselves strong and sane.
Here are some of the best methods for managing work stress, many of which may be just a few baby steps away.
Think about it — we tend to spend far more time doing things that trigger stress responses in our bodies than we do on things that relax us, right? This imbalance has serious consequences for our physical health.
Too much stress can accelerate the aging process, weaken our immune systems, and leave us feeling tired and depressed.
Since stress is a physical and hormonal chain reaction, focus on interrupting this response with healthy habits. The foundation for managing stress and feeling energized generally lies in what we eat, how (and how often) we move, and how much we sleep.
Eat whole foods
You’ve probably been warned ad nauseum that processed foods are bad for you. How bad, you ask? Well, research has linked filling up on processed foods to obesity, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer.
Luckily, eating whole foods may help protect against these health issues. And you don’t have to shop at Whole
Paycheck Foods to do it.
Registered dietitian Amy Jamieson-Petonic suggests munching on fruits, vegetables, 100 percent whole grains, and nuts to help combat excess stress.
Basically, think of the food you eat as the fuel your body uses to tackle whatever challenges you face at work. The higher the quality of your nutrition, the better your defenses will be.
This one also isn’t news. Physical activity releases feel-good, stress-relieving chemicals in the body, and luckily, you don’t have to power through an hour-long boot camp class to reap these benefits.
Virtually any kind of activity that gets your heart pumping for a few minutes can help. So, when stress levels begin to rise, get up and get moving. Stretch, run in place, dance, or just walk around the office to get your blood and endorphins flowing.
You can even boost the physical benefits of moving by taking several deep, cleansing breaths, which help trigger your relaxation response.
Get enough sleep
Unsurprisingly, work stressors are magnified when we’re sleep-deprived and foggy-brained. Does anything ever get better when we’re feeling tired and cranky? Nada.
So, do your best to aim for 8 hours of sleep each night, and try to keep your sleep window as consistent as possible. Sleeping well can help us solve problems with clearer minds (and less frustration) and even boost our intelligence.
Many of us believe that stress is something that happens to us. However, stress is really our response to external factors like deadlines and traffic.
The stress response, which is also known as the flight-or-fight response, is automatically triggered by a thought or belief that we are in danger. It signals our bodies to produce cortisol and adrenaline to help us get out of danger as quickly as possible.
When you think about it, it’s a pretty impressive mechanism — one of the main reasons mankind is still around today.
However, it’s unhealthy to trigger this stress response often and for extended periods of time. So since stress begins in our minds, it’s important to neutralize it when we can and fuel ourselves with more positive, gratitude-filled thoughts instead.
We can take the sting out of negative events in our days by focusing on what’s great in our lives. There are countless ways to cultivate a sense of gratitude, but here’s an easy place to start.
Every evening, take a moment to write down three things that made you feel grateful that day. They can be as simple as seeing a gorgeous sunrise or being complimented on your new pair of shoes. No need to overthink it — just focus on the good.
A consistent meditation practice — even if it’s only five minutes a day — can also help us control the thoughts that can trigger stress.
If you’re one of the many people who find meditation to be a foreign and intimidating concept, just think of it as a time for structured breathing exercises.
The next time you feel stressed because your boss added another task to your overflowing to-do list, stop and take a few deep breaths. Shake out your body, sit down, and breathe intentionally for 5 minutes before facing your work.
Learn to say “no”
Being overbooked, overworked, and overcommitted leads to stress. We’ve all experienced the negative impacts of “too much,” largely due to feeling obligated to say “yes” to everything.
However, the greatest stress reliever of all is exercising your right to say “no.” It feels unnatural (and even rude) at first, but it’s an important skill to learn.
Be polite but firm. In explaining to others that you’re overcommitted. You can even tell your boss “no” — just explain that one more project will compromise the quality of your work. It all comes down to negotiating priorities.
Sometimes, the first step to mitigating work stress is reminding yourself that your frazzled feelings are entirely valid rather than expecting your body to handle impossible workloads flawlessly all the time.
Many of us act like we’re invincible. We run around trying to be the perfect coworkers, the perfect partners, or the perfect community pillars, stretching ourselves too thin with obligations and deadlines and trying to prove our worth.
But we aren’t invincible. We burn out. We get sick. We are vulnerable. And excessive work stress only makes things worse, contributing to health issues like coronary heart disease and diabetes.
Cut yourself a little slack and remember that you’re more than the work you do. And rather than slogging through extra hours at the office each night, spend your “off” time tuning into the other parts of life that make you feel like you.
Schedule quality social time
When we’re working crazy hours, we can find ourselves detached from our relationships — friends, family members, partners, and otherwise.
So, each week, make an effort to schedule some quality time with a loved one just to be together, hang out, and laugh. Disengage from work for a bit and refocus on people who matter beyond the scope of your job.
It’s important to carve out some time to be creative and tap into your inner child. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a creative person, you probably have a talent or hobby that lends itself to imaginative thinking.
Creativity can include anything from cooking dinner to handwriting a card to a friend, or even designing a vision board. No matter how you do it, take a little time each day to play just for the sake of it.
Take a vacation
According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Travel Association, more than half (55 percent) of Americans don’t use all of their paid time off each year. We work tirelessly to earn vacation days and then leave them on the table.
Take back what belongs to you and put up that “Out of Office” automatic email reply. Anxieties about missing work or annoying your boss with your absence will fade away within minutes of unplugging on your vacation.
You are the only person who can advocate for your needs. Will a brief break from the office leave you feeling refreshed and even excited to get back to work? Then by all means, go for it.
If your angst level at work is over the top, you’re not alone. A survey conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2016 found that nearly half (43 percent) of American workers think their jobs have a negative impact on their overall stress levels.
We can’t expect work to be totally stress-free (nice fantasy, though). However, we can work to neutralize day-to-day stress by taking care of ourselves and filling the rest of our time with meaningful things.
Creating space for healthy habits, quality relationships, purpose-driven activities, and even just quiet time for contemplation can make a world of difference.
We all deserve to live happy, healthy lives and it’s never too late to start making simple changes that will allow you to swap some of that stress for a nice dose of inner peace.
This article has been updated and adapted from the original, written by Laurie Erdman.