5 Outside-the-Box Ways to Combat Work Stress That Really Work
By Rachel Grumman Bender
Back in the day, unwinding once the clock hit 5 P.M. meant a pow-wow with coworkers at a local watering hole.
But as work pressures have exponentially increased—admit it, you check office email in bed—lowering your cortisol levels requires more than just a happy hour.In fact, a study released this year by the Harvard and Stanford business schools found a direct link between work-related stress and serious health issues ranging from hypertension to depression.
"It's the relentless demand and constant change. There is no coming home and unwinding anymore—only the ever-present struggle to set boundaries for when you're 'on' and 'off,' " says Sharon Melnick, a business psychologist and author of "Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure's On."
If this all sounds frighteningly familiar, take a deep breath—literally.
Because if you're finding it exceedingly more difficult to deal with stress at work, you may need to embrace something different. And by different we mean strategies you may have once deemed too "alternative-y."
"You can't manage the things outside of you, but you can manage yourself—your physiology, your psychology," Melnick says.
To help you do just that, we've rounded up five wellness trends hitting the mainstream that are simple enough to execute from a quiet spot in your office.
Although they may seem a bit out there to some—ever heard of tapping?—they could be just the thing to help you reclaim the Zen that work zaps out of you.
What Is It? A type of meditation derived from Buddhism in which you focus on your breathing in order to remain present and in the moment.
It's garnered attention in recent years, thanks to high-profile converts like Steve Jobs, who practiced mindfulness meditation regularly, and Arianna Huffington, who describes it as a way to fight burnout in her 2014 book, "Thrive."
They're fans for a reason: A 2011 study found that eight weeks of practicing mindfulness meditation triggered changes in the brain, increasing grey matter in areas that help regulate emotion, learning, and memory.
How to Practice It: Sit in a comfortable chair or cross-legged on the floor. Then close your eyes and simply breathe, intently focusing on each breath you take.
"Your mind will wander, and that's normal. But bring it back," says Jane Ehrman, a mind-body coach and owner of the practice Images of Wellness. "The more you practice bringing it back, and just breathing, [the more] you're teaching yourself to be present and far more aware of when your mind wanders."
Ehrman suggests starting with five minutes a few times a week, and then gradually building up to seven and then 15 minutes.
Where to Learn More: Visit mindful.org for a video that can help guide you through your first mindfulness meditation session. You can also download the Headspace app, which was created by a former Buddhist monk and features daily mindfulness exercises.
Adult Coloring Books
What Is It? As the name implies, it's the childhood practice of staying inside the lines, except with more intricate patterns and pictures.
And it's gaining momentum among members of the grown-up set who want a little art therapy to help relieve stress.
In fact, at one point, adult coloring books outsold Harper Lee's hotly anticipated "Go Set a Watchman" on Amazon.com's best-seller list. And Game of Thrones fans can expect a coloring book based on the T.V. series to hit stores this fall.
"When you're coloring, all you have to do is stay in the moment," Erhman says. "It gets you out of your head. That's what's so great about it."
How to Practice It: Order an adult coloring book off Amazon.com, or download free patterns and pictures online.
Then grab your crayons, colored pencils, or markers—and start coloring away. Consider it an alternative lunchtime activity to checking emails on your smartphone.
Where to Learn More: Check out this list to see what types of adult coloring books are available—from hypnotic patterns to whimsical scenes—and get recommendations on art supplies.
What Is It? A stress-relieving psychotherapy technique that triggers acupressure points on your body by tapping them with your fingers.
Also known as EFT (emotional freedom technique), tapping has been around in its current state since the 1990s. But it garnered more mainstream attention after tapping practitioner Nick Ortner's book, "The Tapping Solution: A Revolutionary System for Stress-Free Living," made the New York Times best-seller's list in 2013.
Although it's often been met with skepticism, a 2012 study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found that tapping reduced cortisol levels—and improved symptoms of anxiety and depression.
"It helps reverse your [negative] wiring," Melnick says.
How to Practice It: Start by using your index and middle fingers to gently tap the outer pinky side of your other hand, while stating a simple phrase aloud that acknowledges what is stressing you out, but affirms yourself regardless.
For example: "Even though I'm up against a big deadline, I deeply and completely accept myself."
Then gently tap eight other acupressure points throughout your upper body, in order, while repeating what is troubling you.
The designated points are the top of your head, your eyebrow, the side of the eye, the bone underneath your eye, the space underneath your nose, your chin, your collarbone, and under your armpit.
If you can't get enough privacy to tap at your desk, try a quick session in the office bathroom whenever you're feeling anxious.
Where to Learn More: Check out more detailed instructions from EFT founder Gary Craig here to make sure you're tapping in exactly the right spots. You can also visit Ortner's site for a slightly modified tutorial.
What Is It? Yoga-based breathing techniques that provide a calming effect, like alternate-nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana) and "cooling breath," which helps lower your body temperature (Sitali).
Studies have shown that not only does pranayama breathing reduce stress, but it also helps improve cardiovascular function and symptoms of asthma.
And as more companies incorporate yoga and mindfulness into employee wellness programs, they're also increasing awareness of controlled breathing.
For example, Aetna's yoga and meditation classes for employees teach breathing techniques, while a popular mental-wellness course offered at Google encourages employees to take a deep, conscious breath as part of a five-step process to deal with work stress.
How to Practice It: For alternate-nostril breathing, sit up straight, with your shoulders relaxed. Bring your right hand up to your nose, folding your index and middle finger toward your palm, so they are out of the way.
Then place your ring and pinky fingers over your left nostril, and your thumb over the right nostril. (These fingers will alternate closing and opening your nostrils as you breathe.)
Gently press down with your thumb to close your right nostril, inhaling through your left. Then close off your left nostril, and exhale through the right. Then inhale through the right, and exhale through the left again. This is one cycle. Try repeating 10 cycles.
For cooling breath, breathe in for several seconds as though you were sipping through a straw, creating a wind tunnel by curling the tip of your tongue. Exhale through your nose.
"When you're feeling heated, [cooling breath] can immediately calm you down—and take your brain out of hijack mode," Melnick says.
Where to Learn More: There are many types of pranayama breathing, so get a rundown of descriptions and benefits of each at Yoga Journal. You can also watch video tutorials of alternate-nostril breathing here, and cooling breath here.
What Is It? A visualization technique that helps you relax by imagining a calming place, or doing a mental rehearsal of a stressful situation, such as giving a presentation in front of clients.
A variation on strategies used to help athletes visualize a win, guided imagery is now popular as a wellness technique.
A 2015 medical study, for instance, showed it significantly decreased anxiety levels among patients undergoing an angiogram, while the Cleveland Clinic says it can have a positive effect on your heart rate and blood pressure.
That might be why Richard Branson put guided imagery on in-flight meditation channels on some Virgin Atlantic flights, allowing stressed-out travelers to transport themselves to a deserted island or a summer meadow.
How to Practice It: Sit in a comfortable spot, close your eyes, and take three or four deep breaths. Imagine yourself in nature, or walking on a path. If it helps, listen to music or nature sounds.
"You're putting yourself in that mindset of everything going well," Ehrman says.
Next, picture you're about to take on the source of your anxiety—for instance, that big presentation.
"Tell yourself all kinds of positive facts, like 'I know this information. I know how to speak clearly, accurately, and concisely,' " suggests Ehrman. "Imagine yourself being asked questions by the audience, and giving an answer. I used to be a gymnastics coach and would say, 'Where your head goes, your body goes.' It applies here, too."
Where to Learn More: Check out the Academy for Guided Imagery for more on how the technique works, and Meditainment.com for guided imagery scenarios that can help you escape to an island paradise, a mountain refuge, an arctic igloo, and more.