It's crunch time. The holidays blur in the rearview mirror, and for many of us, the pressure is piling up. And stress at work, unfortunately, doesn't stay there. It can spill over into your home life, wreck your sleep, and even damage your long-term health. The most insidious part, notes Cynthia Howard, CEO of executive coaching firm Ei Leadership, is that "you can't think your way out of a stress reaction. Trying to shut it off with rational thought won't work."
That's because our central nervous systems respond to risk or danger with an urge toward "fight, flight, or freeze," and in the workplace, you can't usually afford to do any of those. "The human machine isn't designed to handle the speed and complexity of life today," Howard says. "The basic human operating system hasn't had an upgrade in about 100,000 years."
Constant stress is one reason why, in spite of remarkable medical advances, heart disease remains stubbornly widespread. A Gallup study this past July found, for instance, that reporting to a tyrannical boss isn't just unpleasant: it can markedly increase your chances of developing cardiovascular illness.
"Stress is an equal-opportunity destroyer," Howard says. "It elevates your heart rate, tightens up your arteries, raises your blood pressure, and floods your body with cortisol, a hormone that shuts down other, more calming hormones." Stress can even make you gain weight, by interfering with your system's ability to process sugars. On top of all that, relentless stress can put you in a permanent foul mood, so you're just no fun at all anymore.
So how do you get this beast under control? Howard suggests these five proven ways:
1. Take '4x4' deep breaths.
Breathe in on the count of four, hold it in for four beats, then exhale for four more. Do that four times. "Deep, slow breathing is your first line of defense against the stress reaction," says Howard. The physiological reason for this: at difficult moments —when, for instance, your irritating coworker is jumping on your last nerve— your breathing gets shallow and "less effective in blowing off carbon dioxide. That's the opposite of what the body needs to stay energized."
2. Slow down for three seconds.
"To most people these days, three seconds can seem like a long time," says Howard. "But it's just long enough to reboot your brain. Pause, breathe, and focus on what you're going to do or say next." Distractions, especially the electronic kind, can be hard to tune out, at least at first. "It's like hitting the 'pause' button on YouTube," Howard notes. Taking a three-second time out "gets you past 'fight, flight, or freeze' to a point where your rational mind can take over."
3. Try everyday mindfulness.
It's become such a buzzword (not to say a cliche) in business that, paradoxically, mindfulness is easy to discount. But it seems to work. The word "simply means directing your attention to what is happening in the moment, without leaping to conclusions or judgements about it," says Howard. "Because it expands your awareness of details and nuances, mindfulness is crucial to any kind of negotiations." Over time, the habit also tends to make you more resilient and stress-resistant, and who doesn't need that?
4. Keep a journal.
Take exactly five minutes every day and write down —on paper, in a Word doc, or however you like— the answers to three questions: What worked today? What didn't? What's next? "This helps because the focus and clarity get you out of that state of free-floating anxiety that too much stress creates," explains Howard. Why the five-minute time limit? "If you keep it to five minutes, you'll actually do it," Howard says. "Longer than that, and you're so busy that you're likely to skip it." At the end of each week, and each month, she adds, "review your journal and track your progress toward your goals." Regularly concentrating on the big picture helps keep the maddening daily distractions in perspective.
5. Be grateful.
Spending a few minutes every day appreciating all the things that are good about your life can make a huge difference to how resilient you are, and how well you can roll with the punches. Surprisingly, gratitude can even make you smarter under pressure. If you've ever been so stressed out that your mind went blank, here's why: The "fight, flight, or freeze" reaction momentarily disconnects your brain's prefrontal cortex, where rational thought comes from. Gratitude, on the other hand, triggers a hormone called oxytocin that signals the thalamus to reconnect with the prefrontal cortex, so you can think straight again. Turns out that, when she told you to count your blessings, your grandmother had a point.