Go From Stressed Out to Calm, Cool & Collected - Without Leaving Your Desk

by WITHIN Cofounder Hannah Knapp

Your boss just bumped up the deadline on that impossibly big project. The coworker you asked for help has suddenly stopped answering your emails. That crazy obnoxious person who sits three desks over is talking so loudly on the phone that you can't even think. And now your computer has randomly stopped syncing with the systems you need to do just about anything.

If even one of those things has happened to you in the past week, you know the feeling of stress in your system like you know the smell of smoke from a wildfire: the tension in your shoulders and jaw; the racing of your heartbeat; the heat in your cheeks; the irresistible urge to shout, throw things, and crawl into a hole far away from anyone who might possibly want something from you.

Take heart: you aren't alone. We may not all live in the jungle anymore, but we still respond to everyone and everything around us just like we would to tigers lurking in the shadows. You're feeling the social threat of your boss, your coworkers, and technology as strongly as you would a threat to your very life. No wonder you're stressed out!

The good news is, there are quick and effective ways to shift out of the mindsets that are causing you stress, and you don't even have to leave your desk to do them (though if you can, slipping away to a conference room or a rooftop garden would help, too).

Here are our favorite strategies for countering workplace stress.

Take 5.

When you have that rare five minutes between meetings or calls, rather than anxiously trying to squeeze in a response to an email, take time to breathe. When you're stressed, your breath becomes shallower. Not only does that compound the racing heart you're probably experiencing, you're also loosing the benefits of getting more oxygen to your brain.

How you do it: Sit upright in your chair, with your feet on the floor. Put your headphones on if that will help ensure that no one disturbs you. Set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes. Close your eyes (or lower them), and feel your breath rising and falling in your belly or chest. Follow that feeling of your breath going in and out, until the timer goes off. As best you can, each time your mind wanders, just bring it back to your breath.

Take 5, Squared.

If you find it hard to just watch your breath, try this method for controlling it to bring you into a calmer place. You can also start with this method, and then switch to just watching your breath once you're feeling more focused.

How you do it: Sit upright in your chair, with your feet on the floor. Put your headphones on if that will help ensure that no one disturbs you. Set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes. Close your eyes (or lower them), and feel your breath rising and falling in your belly or chest. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold your breath for 4 counts, and breathe out for 4 counts. Continue until the timer goes off, 4 4 4; or, as you begin to feel yourself breathing more deeply, you can switch to 4 in, hold for 4, out for 8.

Get A Reality Check.

Often, when we're super stressed out about something, it's because we've totally lost perspective on how important it really is in the big scheme of things. Try this the next time you're feeling panic coming on about a particular task or deadline.

How you do it: Write down a quick two-sentence summary of the project that is starting to feel stressful. Write one sentence about where the panic is rising from (for example, "I'm worried that the project won't get off the ground and my teammates will judge me for it"). Then, ask yourself, will this matter to me next month? in six months? Will it matter to me in a year? in ten years? Place it in the bigger context of your life, and notice how that affects your stress level.

Stop Being Doomed to Fail.

When you're convinced you're going to fail at something, you probably will. Our minds are incredibly good at looking for (and finding) proof that something we believe is true. Try instead convincing yourself that you might not fail - you might even succeed! And before you brush this off as hooey, try it, and see what shifts.

How you do it: Write down the belief you have about the project (for example, "I will never get this project done by the deadline, and my boss will fire me.") Then, ask yourself, is this really the only possible outcome of this situation? What else might happen? Write down a few different scenarios for how it things might turn out. Open up to the possibility that things could work out differently than you're expecting. When you're finished, tuck what you wrote someplace where you can pull it out periodically and remind yourself of the possibilities ahead.

Forgive Yourself for Being Human.

Overwhelm happens when we believe we should be able to do everything that's asking to be done in our lives. We get panicked, believing we must be superhuman, able to say "yes" to everything and do it all. But, the truth is, you're human! just like everyone else. Try believing this: Everything that truly needs to get done, will get done; do your best, and let the rest go.

How you do it: Tape that sentence to your mirror, or put a reminder in your calendar. Each time you see those words, repeat them to yourself, and take a few deep breaths, allowing it to sink in.

Get Together.

While you can do any of these on your own, I'm also a big fan of getting extra support from other people. Here are two ways you can draw on people around you to help you manage stress:

  • Try doing any of the writing exercises above as dialogues with a trusted friend. Have them ask you the question, and answer it out loud. Have your friend practice just listening, without trying to jump in with advice or opinions, just giving you the space to work it out.

  • Try meditating with a group of people. We started WITHIN because we found it so helpful to meditate with other people. Having the accountability of signing up for a class makes sure you actually take the time to do what you know will be good for you, and the camaraderie helps you keep going. Join us for a class before, during or after work this week, and see for yourself how it changes your stress level at work.

  • Bring meditation to your workplace. Each week, WITHIN teachers lead guided meditation sessions inside companies around the Bay Area. Each time, people are astonished by how much just pausing and practicing mindfulness in the midst of their workday helps them release stress. Workplace wellness programs are starting to include meditation as an essential part of their plans to keep employees from burning out. Just email us at workplace@withinmeditation.com and we'll design a program that works for your culture.

While it's not always possible to prevent stress from starting, you can get better at noticing when it's growing, and getting the distance you need to shift your mindset out of stressed-out reactivity and into calm response. The more you use these tools, the easier it will become to call on that superpower when you need it.