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4 Stress Relaxation Techniques You Can Use at Work

Pushing through stress isn't the only option at work. These techniques can help.

Key points

  • The first step in regaining control of stress is to recognize your symptoms.
  • Breathing and mindfulness techniques are the most effective ways to manage stress.
  • The more you practice these techniques, the more habitual they become.

The first step in taking charge of workplace pressure requires recognizing your stress reaction. Once recognized, these signs can serve as cues for engaging in a take-charge approach.

Pexels/Anna Tarazevich
You don't need a yoga mat and sweatpants for breathing and mindfulness techniques to work.
Source: Pexels/Anna Tarazevich

Some of these symptoms can include:

  • Becoming more critical of others
  • Indecisiveness
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Rumination or predicting the worst
  • Problems concentrating
  • Indigestion
  • Procrastination
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Chest pains
  • Insomnia

Think of the last time you felt pressure at work. Jot down the events surrounding that situation. Looking back at other high-pressure experiences, are there similarities or common themes? For each situation, list the symptoms of stress you experienced. Any consistent symptoms are your cues—the physical, cognitive, and behavioral signs you are overwhelmed.

By identifying these personal cues, you will be in a better position to stop and recognize you’re stressed. You will notice these cues sooner and respond more proactively to stress with practice.

Relaxation Techniques You Can Use in the Office—Wherever You’re Working

Many of the symptoms of stress are part of our natural fight or flight response—the automatic physiological reaction that occurs when a situation is perceived as threatening. This extra boost of energy provides us with the resources necessary to deal with the threat at hand. However, if this extra boost is unnecessary or above optimal, it is a waste of energy, depleting us in the long run.

Breathing and relaxation techniques help us stop the pressure spiral created by our mind and body by lowering our heart rate and blood pressure and reducing muscle tension. We signal our minds that we are no longer under threat by relaxing the body.

There are four techniques you can use in the office—whether at home, in your workplace, or another remote location—that can help you regain a sense of calm:

  • Step 1: Diaphragmatic breathing. Take a moment to locate your breathing. Is it confined to your upper chest? If so, see if you can relax your chest and move your breathing down into your lower abdomen on your next in-breath.

When attempting this technique for the first time, it is often helpful to lie on the floor to better direct your breath. On the out-breath, the abdomen moves in, and the diaphragm moves up toward your chest. This series of movements contrast with breathing that only engages the chest, that rapid rising and falling feeling that can heighten our sense of danger and anxiety.

  • Step 2: The relaxation response. The most popular technique for eliciting the relaxation response is focusing on the breath again. Create a quiet environment by closing your office door and sitting on the edge of your chair, with both hands on your knees and feet flat on the floor. Focus your attention on your breath without trying to control it.

Notice that you are breathing and the specific sensations you experience. When your attention wanders, which will naturally occur, observe it without judgment (“Oh, there’s a thought.”) and turn your attention back to your breathing. Continue this gentle refocusing of attention for anywhere from three to 20 minutes for best results.

  • Step 3: Body scan. There are five steps to the basic body scan technique.
    • Sit on the edge of your chair, spine erect, with hands resting on knees and feet flat on the floor.
    • Starting with your feet, notice the sensations you are experiencing. How do your feet feel on the floor? Can you feel your clothing touching your feet? What does the sensation feel like? Don’t engage in a story or judgments about these sensations. Experience them. Do this for at least 30 seconds and up to one minute.
    • Now, move your attention to your lower legs. Focus on any sensations you experience, repeating the process used in step two.
    • Continue to repeat the process on each major body part: calves, thighs, pelvis, back, chest, hands, arms, neck, shoulders, and head.
    • When you have finished scanning the body, shift attention back to your lower abdomen and engage in one or two deep breaths before moving on with your day.
  • Step 4: Mindful movement. Mindful movement is beneficial when the pressure has become chronic. Movement directly offsets the bodily tension caused by chronic stress, while mindful attention elicits a relaxation response. This can be done even in a seated position:
    • Sit on the edge of your chair, hands on knees, and feet flat on the floor.
    • On your next inhale, tense the muscles in your face for 5 seconds. On the exhale, release the tension. Focus on any sensations you experience while clenching and unclenching these muscles.
    • Now shift your attention to the neck and shoulders, repeating the same technique of tension and relaxation.
    • Repeat this pattern through the muscle groups of your body: neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, back, waist, thighs, calves, ankles, and feet. As you do this, try not to tense any area of the body other than the one you are currently focusing on.

This technique can also be applied to simple stretches, seated or standing.

Consistency Is Key

The more you practice these techniques, the more habitual they become. That habit will pay off in the time and energy you gain from managing your response to stress at work.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that you will get more done by simply pushing through your stress and continuing to work. The physical tension built up when we “just keep working” leads to an above-optimal stress response, depleting our energy and requiring more time to get things done.

When we are under pressure, we tend to fall back on our coping habits. Invest in your future self by building positive habits in response to stress.

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