Tools for Dealing with Stress at Work

Tackling Stress at Your Desk

Are there techniques to help you manage stress at your desk? I got asked this recently by a client & it sent me on a bit of a mission. A lot of modern day stress occurs in the workplace. Telling someone to chant Om or lie down isn’t going to cut it. My client was looking for simple, discreet techniques to help her through the work day. This is what I came up with.

1/ What is stress?

I’m a big believer in knowing what you’re dealing with. Stress is the body’s response to perceived threat. And we haven’t really evolved since the our days as hunter gatherers when it comes to the autonomic nervous system. When we get an email with the dreaded red exclamation mark our body perceives this as it would a lion coming at us. The first priority is survival, so your body prepares to fight the threat or to run away.

Think about how you feel when you get stressed. It’s a big rush of energy and initially at least you feel focused & motivated. Well managed stress can be really productive – certainly I know I work much better under slight pressure. The problems come when we feel overwhelmed, and we go past the stress tipping point.

2/ Keep a stress log

Keep a notebook on your desk just for monitoring your stress levels. Rate your level out of 10 with 0 being Pink Panther like chilled, and 10 being fried. Somewhere on that scale is your sweet spot, where stress is helpful not destructive. When you start to go beyond that sweet spot, take action to reign it in. Beyond that point stress will be detrimental to your performance anyway so you might as well take 5 minutes to bring it down.

3/ Move

If possible, move! Remember your body has boosted your energy levels to fight or flee – if you just sit there your primed muscles are going to turn to tension and you’ll be like a shaken up bottle of fizz. You need to discharge energy. Stamping your feet, drumming with your hands, shaking arms & legs – all will help. If you’re not in a position to leave your desk, tap your heals on the floor, discreetly shake out your hands & feet. Point and flex your feet – inhale with the point, exhale with the flex. Drum your fingers on your desk (if you don’t annoy people!). You can also lessen charge by tapping (EFT). Use the fingers (not the finger tips) of your dominant hand to tap the little finger side of your other hand until you feel some of the fizz subside.

If you can’t move, talk. It’s not quite as effective but talking is a discharging action. Turn to whoever you can and moan.

4/ Breathe

I learned a long time ago that telling someone who is stressed to breathe slowly is a bad idea!! It runs contrary to what your body is primed to do when stressed, ie act fast. It’s much better to start to exert a bit of control over the breath to start with the aim of slowing it down eventually. Here are three suggestions:

  • The simplest thing to do is to rest your hands on your lower ribs (just above your waist and slightly off the centre of the belly). As you breathe int, feel the hands flare out and to the side. As you breathe in, feel the hands move inwards. Breathe like this for 3 minutes. It means you’re using your diaphragm to breathe which will slow your breath and stimulate your relaxation nerve, the Vagus nerve.
  • The client in question found this the most helpful. Divide your inhale breath into 4 light sniffs, and the exhale into 4 light sniffs through the nose. Do this for 2 minutes. Then divide your inhale into 8 light sniffs and exhale in one breath through the nose. Try to smooth out & lengthen the exhale. Continue for 2-3 minutes.
  • The Oxygen Advantage technique for stopping a panic attack is highly effective. Inhale and exhale, then hold the breath out for 5 seconds (pinch your nose if you can without looking weird). Take a couple of normal breaths and then repeat. Breathe in this way for 3-5 minutes. It works by raising carbon dioxide levels in the body. Carbon dioxide is a sedative – when we’re stressed we breathe quickly and dump a lot of CO2, adding to feelings of tension.
  • Box breathe – inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. If you can hold your focus on this for 3 minutes, your stress levels will come down. Your body likes rhythmic repetition, it makes it feel secure. And since you’re stressed because your body has perceived threat, convincing it that it’s safe is a great plan.

5/ Reassure

Whilst you might be able to rationalise that it won’t be the end of the World if you don’t get the report done on time, your body is working in primitive mode. Telling it to calm down won’t do much good. However taking steps to reduce its threat level will help.

  • Ground yourself – when we’re stressed, the mind is in overdrive and we’re scattered. Quite often when someone is really stressed they have no concept of the size and shape of their feet. So feel your body as much as you can – rub your feet and your hands. Bounce your bum up and down on your seat. Relax you lower back and belly, Stretch your arms overhead for as long as you can without drawing attention to yourself (this will slow the body and breath down considerably).
  • Touch yourself – not in a weird way, obviously. Gentle stroking along the arms and shoulders, or a face massage works wonders.
  • Scan the room – look around to the left as far as you can, then move your head very slowly as far as you can to the right, keeping your eyes open. This will lower the threat level and also activate the vagus nerve. Name out loud five things you can see, five things you can touch, five things you can smell and five things you can hear.

6/ Press

If you’re in a meeting and none of the above are available to you, use an acupressure point. My favourite is found by curling your fingers into the palm of the hand – the point is under where the little finger tip touches the palm. Take the thumb of the other hand and press in there with a firm pressure. If it aches, it’s working. Hold for 60-90 seconds.


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