Even if you love what you do, chances are your job is one of your biggest sources of stress. Whether you’re toiling under a heavy workload or struggling with difficult coworkers, the stressful stuff you deal with on a day-to-day basis can take its toll on your health, especially when it’s relentless. (See my post on the effects of chronic stress here.) Since leaving your job for a life of leisure probably isn’t an option, how do you handle stress at work? Here are some tips for corporate stress management.
Formerly something of a fringe practice, mindfulness has entered the mainstream thanks to its scientifically proven ability to boost energy, improve focus, and relieve anxiety. But what exactly is it? Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), describes being mindful as paying deliberate, nonjudgmental attention to the moment. When you’re in this neutral mindset, you’re able to see your worries as mere thoughts and let them go. For this reason, mindfulness meditation is a superior stress reliever. In one study, people with generalized anxiety who followed a stress-reduction program based on mindfulness were considerably less anxious than those in a control group who were taught other stress management techniques. To reap the stress-busting benefits of meditation at work, simply set aside a few minutes and find a quiet spot—an empty conference room will do, or just close your office door. Every little bit helps, so make a commitment to incorporate this simple yet powerful practice into your workday routine. As a recent New York Times piece points out, you can also apply mindfulness to daily job responsibilities by staying present and focusing on accomplishing one task at a time to prevent work from piling up. To learn more about mindfulness meditation, including the ways it can change your brain, see my post here.
Hit the Gym
In my experience, nothing beats a bad day like a good workout. As a busy physician and triathlete who’s written extensively about the healing power of exercise, I know just how well it works to relieve stress, and science supports this. Not only does exercise produce endorphins, the chemicals responsible for “runner’s high,” it also lowers your levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. One study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found physical activity can even reorganize your brain so it responds less to stress. When mice were divided into two groups—one with free access to a running wheel and one without—and exposed to stress, the brains of mice who were allowed to run experienced a jump in neurons responsible for shutting down excitement in the part of the brain known to regulate anxiety. Neurons in the runner mice also released more gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a calming neurotransmitter. But you don’t need a scientist to tell you how good exercise feels. Have you ever regretted a workout? Try going straight from the office to the gym, letting go of your stressful day so you don’t waste your evening stewing over office politics or the project you need to finish. It’s important to blow off steam so it doesn’t build up and cause you to explode.
Can’t seem to make it to the gym? Take a walk instead. According to Tieraona Low Dog, MD, spending time outdoors can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, relax your muscles, and bolster your immune system. She points to a 1984 study where hospital patients with a view of nature through their windows had shorter stays, needed less pain medications, and generally felt better than those facing a brick wall. In Japan, a form of preventative medicine called Shinrin-yoku, or “forest-bathing,” involves simply walking in the woods and has been proven to relieve stress, improve mood, increase focus, and more. Even if you don’t live anywhere near a forest, you can harness the healing power of nature just by going outside. Put down your phone and stroll around the block on your lunch break or sit in the yard for a bit after dinner. No time for a break? Put a couple green plants in your cubicle or spend some time staring out the window to ease work-induced tension.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.