Letting Go of Work-Related Stress
Ways to unwind and avoid harm to your relationship
Posted Jan 29, 2017
Transitioning to home-life after a stressful day at work can present challenges for even the best of relationships. Stresses may include long commutes, disgruntled coworkers, overbearing bosses, and just plain mental fatigue.
To make matters worse, once you get home, you may face a hungry family, homework completion to supervise, children’s sporting events or music lessons, housework, and family events. In addition, we are supposed to get in 30 minutes of exercise? Unfortunately, my Fitbit tells me that doing dishes doesn’t meet my daily cardio requirement.
I fully acknowledge that the Mom or Dad working at home, caring for young children, is no less taxed (and usually more exhausted) than those working outside the home. These ideas are meant for anyone who feels worn out by the end of their day.
Why Take Time to Relax?
Most of us know that good relationships require cooperation, patience, and good communication skills, among other things. All of these behaviors can be challenging by the end of a long work-day. You may know which issues are better discussed when you and your spouse are rested, but do you use that level of judgement when you are completely exhausted by your work-day? Good communication skills are much more difficult to practice when you are highly stressed.
Even the initial greeting between you and your partner is actually extremely important to the quality of the relationship. According to John Gottman (1999), one of the best ways to maintain a friendly relationship with your spouse is to appreciate the importance of how you re-unite. If you consistently re-unite after a separation (such as a work day) with a warm and affectionate greeting, that will enhance your friendship. Consider a hug and a kiss before launching into a description of the day’s annoyances.
There are many ways to de-stress after a challenging day and I will suggest a few of them. My first goal is to increase the awareness of the need to de-stress, since I see many people tending to ignore their own needs as they make that “day to evening” shift.
Recognize Your Stress Response
First, it is important to recognize your own physical reactions to stress. Evolutionary psychologists have explained how certain physical changes occur when we are feeling threatened, whether the threat is due to traffic jams, or being chased by a stray dog. These changes include increased heart rate, breathing more heavily, constricted blood vessels, and higher blood pressure. They have contributed to our chances of survival over time because they ready us for the “fight or flight response”. Historically, when human lives were threatened by wild animals or other angry humans, they had to be ready to either fight for survival or run away. In the modern context, it isn’t recommended to leap out of the car and flee from a traffic jam (although I can recall more than once wishing I had that option). The “fight” response of honking horns or confronting other drivers is unfortunately a common response, but not a recommended one either. It is to our benefit to acknowledge the stress reaction and learn to calm ourselves in acceptable, safe ways.
Strategies for De-Stressing
Even as you are traveling home, take advantage of the relaxing effects of listening to music. The act of listening to any type of music that you love has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain. Although the relationship between dopamine levels and mood as well as behavior is very complex, a small to moderate increase in dopamine is usually associated with improved mood (www.mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/04/01/high-dopamine-levels-symptoms-adverse).
Chewing gum is another easy way to counteract the effects of a stressful day at work. It has been shown to reduce subjective anxiety, improve alertness, and reduce stress when the level of stress is mild or moderate. When salivary cortisol (a physiological stress marker) was used to measure the body’s stress response, levels were 16% lower in gum-chewers vs. non-chewers under conditions of mild stress (www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/).
Another option, which has been shown to calm us down by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, is doing some deep breathing exercises. There are many online guides to deep breathing, but here is a brief description of how it is commonly done. Start by sitting as comfortably as possible, with your back supported. Breathe in through your nose as you silently count to 3. Pause for a second, and then exhale through your mouth. As you exhale, slowly count to 4 (or more as you are able to). When you breathe in deeply from the abdomen rather than taking shallow breaths from the upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. More oxygen leads to less tension and less shortness of breath, and these changes lessen the anxiety that you feel.
After arriving home, there are a number of things one might do to relax. One strategy is to take a walk for at least 10 minutes, or engage in some other form of physical exercise. Ideally, the exercise would be outdoors, as there is evidence that nature has a calming effect upon us. We are more likely to clear our minds and focus on the natural surroundings. Realistically, living in the Chicago area, few of us enjoy walking outdoors when the temperatures drop to the teens or the wind chill reaches the single digits. Running in place, jumping rope, or doing sit-ups are indoor possibilities.
Guided imagery is an easy, simple strategy which is especially helpful for individuals who are highly visual and who can create mental images with color and detail. Think of a place where you have felt relaxed and safe in the past, such as a beach, mountain trail, or forest. Picture yourself in that place and include the details of what you might experience there, including glimpses of wildlife, sounds, pleasant scents, and physical sensations. Use as many senses as possible to feel as though you are really in that environment. Let’s take a beach for example. You might see the clear blue water, hear the sound of waves breaking on the shore, feel the sand under your feet and the warmth of the sun on your face. Simply imagining these experiences can generate relaxation.
Since our brains interpret hunger as a threat to our survival, feeling hungry is a legitimate stressor. Assuming that your evening meal is not immediately ready, you might have a healthy snack to relieve stress. Use your judgement here—some options would include a few carrot sticks, an ounce of nuts, or half an apple. Obviously the snack choice should meet any dietary restrictions you might have been given by a physician.
Another way to encourage a calm atmosphere in your home is to place a houseplant in your living space. According to Prevention Magazine (www.prevention.com/health/healthy-living/home-stress-management), studies have provided evidence that houseplants are associated with a drop in blood pressure compared to the same environment without any houseplants. This reduction was as much as 11%. There are various good choices for plants that are easy to grow, including English Ivy, Aloe Plant, Bamboo Palm, Philodendron, Rubber Tree Plant, and Peace Lily. Some of these even have the benefit of removing toxins from the air in our homes. For more information, refer to “10 Best Houseplants to De-Stress Your Home and Purify the Air” (www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/29best-houseplants-de-stress).
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a well-established method of inducing the relaxation response. It can be practiced for just 10 minutes a day and becomes more and more effective over time. In the practicing stage, muscle groups are intentionally tensed and relaxed, usually beginning with the feet and moving upward to the facial muscles. Eventually, the use of a cue word, such as “relax” or “calm” can bring about the relaxation response. For an example of how to use this method, check out the Brain & Behavior Videos with Sandra Kiume (blogs.psychcentral.com/channel/2016/09/progressive-muscle-relaxation-how-to-video/).
Laugh! Think of something funny that happened during the day, tell a joke, watch a funny U-tube video, and let yourself enjoy some humor. Laughter has the effect of increasing the amount of oxygen-rich air that we breathe, which in turn, signals our brains that we are safe to relax. It also increases the levels of mood-boosting endorphin in our bloodstream. In a 2006 paper presentation by the American Physiological Society, it was reported that ”beta-endorphin and Human Growth Hormone increases are associated with both the anticipation and experience of mirthful laughter.”(www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-04/aps). Just the anticipation of watching a funny video led to a 27% increase in beta-endorphin levels.
Here’s a final idea that will surprise no-one and yet we all resist doing it: turn off your cell phone. The constant input of texts or e-mails, as well as social media, is not conducive to relaxation. (Good luck convincing your teens of that.)
Of course, there are various other strategies for management of stress over a longer period of time. These include: improved planning, affirmation of values, mindfulness practice, and thoughts of gratitude (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-matters-most/201701/10-new-strategies-...).
Try some or all of these strategies and find out what works for you. You may find your car strewn with gum wrappers as mine is, or you may rediscover your sense of humor.
Gottman, J. 1999. The Marriage Clinic. A Scientifically-based Marital Therapy. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.