Stress and anxiety can strike at anytime anyplace, but there’s something particularly anxiety- producing about the office. Work stress seems like some of the worst because your livelihood is tied to your performance. The best thing you can do it get it under control, but how?
For some much-needed guidance, we reached out to Hope & Grace Initiative Board Member and friend, Dr. Belisa Vranich, renowned clinical psychologist, public speaker, and author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve your Mental and Physical Health (St. Martin’s Press/Hay House.) Here’s Dr. Vranich’s advice on how to find relief from stress and anxiety in the office through the simple, steady management of your breath:
Understand what’s causing it
“Most of us don’t understand what’s causing this anxiety in the workplace. It’s quite simple: the office represents the modern day predatory state. You don’t go hunting for mammoth anymore; you sit in front of your computer. However, you act much the same way as you would in the days when we were hunting for survival: focused just as intently, just as freaked out. If you’re in a high-stress job, it’s very much like being in a very dangerous place because it is. When I talk to traders and hedge fund patients, they describe the trading floor much like a hunting pit. It was quite frightening to me.
Many people’s jobs have that intensity of a life-or-death situation, sometimes representing millions and millions of dollars. Depending on your personality, working with a hard boss or knowing some deliverable is going to be late can also cause this type of feeling, that feeling of impending doom, like your worst-case scenario is coming to life.”
What happens to your body
“In situations where your stress level spikes in a life-or-death, fight-flight-or-freeze scenario, your body reacts quite dramatically. You stop breathing, or start breathing in a shallow, quick manner. Your body constricts or starts to pulsate because your cortisol levels are up, and your adrenaline may even be pumping. Essentially, the body is giving you the response and energy spike you would need to either fight or run for your life in the face of danger, and it can be incredibly disconcerting, particularly if it happens frequently.”
How to deal with office stress
“Some people try to burn off the energy or shut it down. Usually, you see some people either go to the gym where they obsessively exercise, or they head to Happy Hour and drink. While these can help in the short term, neither are great long-term strategies. It’s important to learn how to control your breath.
The first thing you must do is get control of your breathing. As you’re in a panicked state, the first thing is notice is how you’ve stopped breathing or that you’re breathing in a shallow way. Most people immediately try to slow their breath immediately so they can meditate, but it never works that way; you’re too wired to immediately slow your breathing down. That would be like trying to meditate while taking a spinning class. You should start by getting the anxiety out of your body.
The best way to regain control of your breathing is an ancient breathing technique from yoga called “kapala bhakti.” I call them “exhale pulsations” in my book, but essentially you exhale forcefully and rapidly through your mouth as if you were blowing out candles.
Each time you forcefully exhale, press your navel to your spine and squeeze your belly. You should be feeling short, shallow breaths coming from your lower belly that sort of feel like a workout (which it is.) Do a round of 25, then take a deep breath in, deeply enough so you rock forward and let your belly expand. Fill your belly with air, then give yourself a full exhale. Repeat for another round of 25 exhale pulsations, rock forward, big inhale, exhale all the way out. Repeat for a third time. By this time, all the anxiety should be gone.
After you’ve relaxed, continue breathing from your lower belly, breathing in for a count of four and exhaling for a count of four. You can also try a technique called “tactical breathing” after you’re a bit calmer, which is to inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of six, and then hold your breath for a count of two. Repeat until calm.”
“If you’re free from neck or back problems, you can complement your newly-calmed state with a gentle spinal twist in your office chair, which helps wring stress out of the body. Sit in your chair facing forward, then take your right hand and place it at the end of the opposite chair arm and gently shift your midsection toward your right elbow. You should feel a gentle stretch across your midsection, squeezing your middle like you’re wringing it out like a towel until you’re looking over your own shoulder. Slowly exhale until you empty all the breath, then slowly inhale as you return to your neutral starting position. Repeat the same move on the opposite side.
You can also stretch your back by separating your knees a bit in a seated or standing position and gently stretching toward the ground as you try to touch your fingertips to the floor. Inversions like these are incredible for circulation and mental balance. Let your head hang free and breathe easy. Take a couple of breaths and really focus on feeling your belly expand between your legs on the inhale and the narrowing on the exhale. Stay for a few breaths, then slowly make your way to upright again.”