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Relax at Work? Ha!
Though firms in countries outside the United States offer an institutionalized nap as part of the workday, American corporate culture subscribes to the hard-driving, multi-tasking get-it-done mind-set.
However, have a meltdown or two at work, even with 20 years in the business, and your job could be history.
While Americans have widely embraced yoga as a way to shape up physically and emotionally after work and on weekends (giving way to a subculture made chic by firms like Lululemon and countless yoga studio chains nationwide), most of us probably could use an "emergency tool kit" of things we can use at work, discreetly, and in the privacy of our cubicle for a variety of situations: a dressing down by the boss, a workplace rivalry, a fall in sales figures.
According to Stephen Balzac, professor of organizational psychology at Wentworth University in Boston and founder of the business-oriented organization 7 Steps Ahead (www.7stepsahead.com), the first step in managing stress is understanding what happens to your body when a situation triggers a natural tendency toward fight or flight.
"A million years of evolution has conditioned us to shunting all power to shields and weapons," says Balzac. "We shift into this overdrive state, which is designed to get out of danger; however, the things that stress us out in the 21st century such as traffic, computer usage, cell phone calls do not go away."
When it comes to managing stress on the job, or anywhere else, Balzac suggests adding certain exercises to one's fitness plan to condition the body to respond to relaxation. This can be achieved with an ongoing practice of meditation, yoga, running, Tai Chi, Qigong or relaxation breathing.
"It doesn't matter what you do, but what does matter is how often you do it and you do it on a regular basis," advises Balzac.
"When you exercise, what my researchers found is that the body builds more stress-resistant neurons. Not only does it burn energy from the stress but it makes you more emotionally and mentally resilient. Even taking a vigorous walk, and getting moving can help enormously."
Balzac's lectures and literature also focus on how structuring one's day can reduce stress; he notes that there is a differ-ence between measuring time and experiencing time. By shifting the paradigm in how one views time, a person can also control thoughts that may end up in his or her wasting time worrying about things that may not relate to the problem at hand. He refers to this as "thought stopping."
"The late Bruce Lee used to say that when things began to go wrong, he would take that negative thought or image and write it up on a piece of paper and then throw it away. The trick with this ritual is that it teaches us that we can only have one thought in our head at a time."
Balzac adds that "when we symbolically destroy a bad thought, we replace it with a positive thought. It is good to try this when not stressed, so that when you are, the positive thought will be available."
Dr. Jeff Schwartz, a research psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine and author of over 100 scientific publications in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry, is also an advocate of calming breathing exercises, such as pranayama breathing used in yoga.
However, Schwartz (whose expertise has been tapped for Oprah, 20/20 and The Today Show) takes this several steps further in his latest book, You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life.
"The whole point of the book and the process described in it is that you can do something about the way your brain interprets things by changing the way you breathe and observe," Schwartz says. "By doing what we describe as 'simple breath,' you gain a greater awareness of your true self."
Though "mindfulness" has become a popular term among people in a variety of fields to describe approaching life with more care, Schwartz refers to the heightened awareness of one's feelings and reactions as "mindful awareness."
Barry Maher, who hosts a series of workshops called "De-Stress for Success" (www.barrymaher.com), points out that stress raises one's breathing and heart rates: "Several times a day, before work, at midday and in the afternoon, consciously practice taking six-second normal breaths: three seconds in, three seconds out, breathing from the diaphragm, but normal breaths."
Allentown-based psychologist and workplace stress specialist Judy Belmont has gained notoriety for her workplace wellness programs for Philadelphia-area groups that include the Lehigh Valley Jewish Federation. She takes on the topic playfully in The Swiss Cheese Theory of Life: How To Get Through Life's Holes Without Getting Stuck In Them (with Lora Shor) and more seriously in her work-focused websites (www.worksiteinsights.com and theswisscheesetheoryoflife.com).
Her research has led to the conclusion that excessive negative stress affects the immune system, making one vulnerable to a variety of health problems.
New York-based author, radio personality and stress-management specialist Debbie Mandel (Addicted to Stress: A Woman's 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life), notes that while taking a nap to make the workplace blues go away is probably not advisable, a professional can rest his or her mind and spike productivity via visualization, which she describes as a form of self-hypnosis that takes roughly five minutes.
Mandel also advises keeping a witty screen saver on your computer, which can be about your children, a pet or a joke, and change it periodically.