by Dr. Will Cole
If you are seriously stressed out at work right now, your’e not alone. Surveys say that as many as 80 percent of Americans are, too. You probably already know that work stress is bad for your mental health, but according to the CDC, problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than any other life stressor, including money and family problems.
Plus, stress causes system-wide problems. It’s associated with a greater risk of depression, anxiety, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, and autoimmune conditions, and a recent Harvard and Stanford study found that workplace stress is as detrimental to your health as secondhand smoke!
Why? Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that stress causes or worsens inflammation because inflammation is regulated by the stress hormone cortisol, which is secreted by the adrenal glands. The researchers found that chronic stress affects the brain-adrenal connection, and when that happens, inflammation can get out of control and become chronic. This condition is commonly referred to as “adrenal fatigue,” and it decreases your body’s ability to regulate inflammation. It can also promote the development of chronic and autoimmune diseases.
As a functional medicine practitioner, every day I see clients who are suffering from job stress that affects their health. I work with many patients whose well-being took a turn for the worse in a stressful work environment, but I also have some good advice for combating that toxic situation. Stop letting your job hurt your health with these tips for creating a greater sense of calm for yourself (and others!):
1. Start your day better.
Morning is a key time for establishing a sense of rush and stress, or a sense of calm and mindfulness. Set the tone and you will benefit all day long. One of the best ways I know to do this is to get up earlier. Yes, you need sleep, but not fitful snooze-alarm sleep followed by a rush of panic, doing everything at the last minute, and worrying about being late. Instead, set your alarm earlier, don’t hit the snooze, get up, and give yourself plenty of time to slowly wake up and adjust to the morning. Have a glass of green tea and spend time in silence, centering yourself for the day.
2. Reality-check your to-do list.
The next thing I recommend is getting to work a little early. Now, hear me out. That might sound horrible to some, and maybe you want to spend as little time at work as possible, but getting there early will continue to set a calm and relaxed tone, and it will give you time to yourself to focus your day productively, rather than jumping right in to work you haven’t fully planned or organized.
Use those early minutes – even five or ten minutes is enough – to make a list of what you would like to accomplish that day. But be real about it. Don’t make a list of a week’s worth of work. Just today’s. Start with the most urgent items so you can tick those off first, then add the work that is longer-term or lower priority. Really look at your list. Is it possible to do all those things today? If not, trim it down, then as you go through your day, check off or highlight the tasks as you complete them.
This approach will help you discard the mental clutter and organize the important things in a way that will best help you get things done without rushing or worrying you are forgetting something. This should make you more productive at your job, but even more importantly, it will help you work with a sense of calm, order, and confidence. But also remember, if it all doesn’t get done today, give yourself grace – there is always tomorrow.
3. Cultivate a mindfully organized workspace.
Clutter on the outside can cause clutter on the inside, so schedule a time each week to devote to cleaning up and organizing your desk and office space. Throw away papers and items that you don’t need. File away things that aren’t pending. Keep pending items in view but organized so you can keep them in mind. Minimizing office mess is a great way to bring calm to your day – just looking at a clean, clear, organized desk is calming.
4. Create a personalized Zen zone.
Cleaning and organizing your workspace is level one. Level two is transforming that workspace into a calming environment that makes you feel good just being there. Some calming additions I like to use in my own workspace: An aromatherapy diffuser with lavender or citrus scents, a small waterfall feature (like one of those desk fountains), a live plant or flowers, and any small token that reminds you of something calm or even spiritual, like a crystal, a figurine, or a framed photo of a place you love. It doesn’t take much – just a few calming cues can transform your day. A little Zen can go a long way.
5. Ditch multi-tasking.
As you move through the day’s to-do list, focus on doing one thing at a time, because multi-tasking is hard on the brain. Choose what you are doing and remain present with that one task until you finish. When you notice you are getting preoccupied with thoughts on the future or the past, or on the other things you also need to do, you won’t work as efficiently and you will feel more stressed. But also don’t allow boring work to numb your brain. Work should be more than something to do while you watch the clock tick towards closing time.
However mundane your to-do list may be, honor it and do your best. Take pride in even the most menial task. Let the present moment of your work, no matter what it is be a meditation exercise, like the Zen monks who consider washing dishes to be a meditation. Fully accepting the task instead of mentally fighting against it decreases stress and can help bring you inner peace.
6. Breathe consciously throughout the day.
Under stressful conditions, breathing get shallower, which only feeds anxiety. Observing your breath is a fundamental way to bring inner stillness to your day, so I recommend periodically practicing conscious breathing throughout yoru work day, to anchor you in the present moment.
Whenever you find yourself getting stressed at work, take a few moments to just breathe naturally and focus on those breaths, letting worries and anxieties diffuse and drift away. Some smart watches and phone apps will also remind you to do this throughout the day, for conscious breathing maintenance.
7. Detox from social media during the day.
As many as 60 percent of employees check their social media accounts multiple times throughout the workday, but compulsively checking status updates, “likes,” “favorites,” and retweets pulls you out of the present moment, distracting you and decreasing your productivity. It’s the perfect way to increase your stress.
LifeEdited founder Graham Hill, an expert in the field of simplifying life, told me once that texting at work today is akin to using the work phone off and on all day 20 years ago. If you wouldn’t be on your office phone making personal calls during all those times that you’re currently texting or checking the status of your latest social media post, you should probably put your cellphone away. If you’d like to learn more about how to unplug and give yourself a tech detox, read my tips.
8. Step away from the water cooler.
Yes, you should drink lots of water, but that office gossip that seems to happen in that vicinity? That’s not going to quench your inner thirst for calm. It’s easy to get caught up in complaining about a certain co-worker, client, or boss, but negative chatter and gossiping has a way of eroding mindfulness and also builds a toxic work environment. When you hear gossip, just walk away or try to change the subject, and certainly don’t add to it. Be the change you want to see at work.
9. Let lunch calm your brain.
The foods we choose to eat have a profound ability to strengthen or weaken our body’s response to stress. I recommend choosing lunches that feature healthy fats like coconut oil and avocados to nourish your brain, which is, after all, the CEO of your stress response.
10. Don’t snack yourself into stress.
Feed your brain well at lunch, and don’t undo all your good work by zapping your healthy brain function on your coffee break. Steer clear of sugar in particular, and also gluten, which can inflame your brain, along with other harmful items. The office vending machine should never be an option – unless there are bags of kale chips in there! (And if there are, lucky you!)
11. Calm yourself with fresh air and sunshine.
When you have a break, ditch the caffeine and go soak up some sun. Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is essential for lifting your mood and brain function. If it’s not a sunny day, simply going outside and breathing the fresh air can help you reboot and feel better during a stressful workday, and it’s always uplifting to connect with nature, even if it’s just that one tree outside your office. Go sit next to that tree! Sit still for a moment and practice that conscious breathing.
12. Don’t shortchange your sleep.
You can get up earlier (see item #1) without losing sleep if you go to bed earlier, and chances are, you’ve been staying up too late anyway. Getting enough sleep ensures you will be recharged for the next day of work. Research published in JAMA showed that optimal sleep for most people is around seven hours per night.
These simple tools, practiced regularly, can make a meaningful difference in your efforts to create a sense of calm that will carry you through your workday with less stress. When you are ready to take it to the next level, consider looking into healing your hormones from years of past job stress. Functional medicine can help uncover underlying problems like adrenal fatigue and hidden thyroid dysfunctions. You could take advantage of a free webcam or phone evaluation to talk about your individual case.
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