Everything you need to know about combating workplace stress 

Do you love going to work? Does your work environment make you happy? If you answered no to either of these questions, don’t worry because you aren’t alone.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my survival tips for handling stress in a new workplace wellness blog series. 

Before you read on, I don’t want you to go handing in your notice if your workplace isn’t a place you love to be. There are multiple factors that influence your enjoyment at work, many of these you can’t control, but many you can, and this blog is all about the main thing you have the power to change. You.

Handling stress at work

Everyone deals and reacts to stress differently. Our stress tolerances can change over time and are impacted by things such as past experiences, trauma, sleep, grief, habits and our belief systems. The way I see it, we all have a specific bandwidth or tolerance to stress which can fluctuate depending on our genetics, habits and the stage we are at in our life.

The mental and emotional energy required to cope with stress is like a metal spring. Sometimes, it’s loaded with high levels and will bend and adapt. However, when you’ve experienced trauma early on in life or grief or a significant life change, the ability for the spring to take load is reduced.

It’s situations like this, that we need to work harder to build up our stress tolerance and restore balance, for the sake of our body and nervous system.

Symptoms of stress in the workplace

Workplace stress symptoms are the same as any other stressful life experiences. Our body’s flight, fight or freeze response is activated, going into overdrive to deal with the real or perceived threat in front of us. Our brain isn’t wired to differentiate between  being chased by a lion and your boss breathing down your neck to meet a deadline. 

When we are in this state, our blood is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones), which triggers the sympathetic nervous system. This is one side of the autonomic nervous system that is continually working behind the scenes to keep your body in balance and when your foot is on the stress accelerator for long periods, body and mind begin to suffer. 

How Stress impacts Your body

Many systems in our body are impacted by stress. Our digestive system has its resources diverted, which affects blood flow to the gut. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase to supply oxygen to the muscles to help mobilise us away from this perceived danger. Our body uses the quick energy store of glycogen in times of stress instead of long term fat stores, making us crave something sweet, or carbo-loaded to help replace the energy we have lost (this is why you crave the 11 am or 3 pm sugar pick up). 

Our muscles that are designed to get us out of danger, also pre-tension quickly. This works great when under threat, but not when you’re sitting all day. 

A study looking at office workers found that one of the risk factors for getting neck pain after a year, were those that experienced higher levels of psychological stress. A psychological trigger still causes a physical reaction, with a change in tension in these muscles as well as adapting our breathing pattern to upper chest breathing and hyperinflating the chest. 

It’s why stress is both psychological and physiological. You can’t cut the head off from the body, even though a lot of the day we are disconnected from what our body is doing, driving it around on autopilot. 

To master the impact of stress, we must work on a top-down and bottom-up system. One of the critical tools to help with bottom up-regulation is learning to change the way you breathe. This is a life skill that we are not taught. Because breathing is the only part of your autonomic nervous system that is under both conscious and subconscious control, you can use it to help your body feel safe and get out of flight or fight. 

Why our breathing changes with work stress

One of the most important things that changes when we are under pressure is our breathing. It can vary in several ways due to the muscles we use, the frequency of the number of breaths we take and the rhythm of our breathing.  Over time this can have a knock-on effect on your mind and body, keeping you in a stressed state if the pattern of breathing is maintained.

In the caveman days, our fight or flight system would have come from threats to our survival. Now our modern-day workplaces are triggering that primitive wiring by the constant barrage of emails, meetings, long work hours and pressures to complete tasks.  

As your body tries to increase its oxygen supply to the muscles to help mobilise you out of danger, you take larger breaths taking in higher volume, more frequently, recruiting your back up breathing muscles in your neck and shoulders. Long term, this flawed pattern leads to the trigger points of neck and shoulder pain (hence why those office workers were prone to neck pain), a change in your blood chemistry and physiology with loss of carbon dioxide and may trigger anxiety and psychological changes. 

Learning to increase your stress tolerance at work

The good news is we can improve our stress tolerance, but after years of bad habits, it can take extra work.

Our daily habits can reduce our stress bandwidth. Coffee, lack of sleep and exercise, alcohol, diet, and even the way we breathe can all impact our ability to combat stress.

While you might be thinking this isn’t an issue for you just yet, research into epigenetics has shown that long term stress (which comes down to how we manage stress) has an impact on the DNA that will be expressed in the body. Which, in turn, influences diseases and possibly trigger conditions, as well as reducing life expectancy

Stress-reducing routines at home

While our daily habits can give us a short term gain or a quick hormone fix that make us feel better in the long term, they can have a detrimental effect when we are under pressure. Establishing routines that help expand your stress bandwidth can be a game-changer. 

It takes time, commitment and effort to break long-standing habits. If world-leaders, top entrepreneurs and performers all have honed morning routines that contribute to their successes, maybe it’s something to start carving out in your day. 

But we also need to learn to conserve and nurture our bandwidth under significant life change. I’ve had to learn that lesson a lot in the past few years. I’ll cover this in the third blog in this workplace stress reduction series. 

Morning stress-reducing routine

For me, my morning routine can be dependent on when two little people wake up and jump on me. Most of the time, I set an alarm a little bit earlier, then I do a 10-minute breath practice (meditation, breath holds or body scan) which allows me to become present with what’s happening in my body and emotions. 

Sometimes I use guided meditation and my favourite at the moment is by Dr Joe Dispenza. His voice and his ideas are a bit unusual, but it helps me tune into what is happening internally. 

Find whatever helps you. There are some great guided mindfulness apps such as CALM, Insight Timer or Smiling Mind that I also highly recommend when you need a little guidance.

Gratitude Routine – “It is gratefulness that makes us happy.”

At the end of my breath session, I pause and think of three things I’m grateful for that day. Gratitude can be for anything that you are grateful in your life. From a tiny thing such as having your pet snuggling in for a cuddle, to seeing your best friend, to being alive in this beautiful world at this moment. 

If you want to learn more about how gratitude can shift your emotions, energy and physiology, check out this TED talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast. I like how he invites us to “stop, look and go”. To have a shift in our consciousness, we need to pause and slow down to be able to sense what is truly going on. I think for 32 years of my life I didn’t do this and I am continually trying to make up for it!

At work, you can create your own stop signs that allow you to take moments to pause and tune in. It can be every time an email comes in, when you collect printing, a bathroom break, when you finish a phone call etc. You need to find the right stop sign for you and then practice pausing in that slice of a moment. 

Why not share three things you are grateful for in the comments below?

Exercise routine to reduce stress

In my family, I was always thought of as the sportiest of my five siblings. In reality, I just loved to move and it felt good, which motivated me to play sports. It doesn’t mean that I was sportier than the rest, just that exercise became a significant outlet for managing stress. 

I didn’t realise it until reflecting back how much I hated school, how tough it was, and how much bullying impacted me. Even at an early age, I was creating tools that would help me manage stress, like exercise, for later in life. 

Ideally, I’d love to go for a run or get a cardio fix first thing in the morning, but I don’t always get the chance, so instead, I try at least one stretch (usually hip flexors or pec stretch as these are the areas I hold the most tension) and ten reps of one strengthening exercise like ten squats or ten push-ups or ten downward dogs. 

What it does is signal to my body that it’s time to get going, and help get my breathing settled from the higher levels of cortisol first thing in the morning. Some days I can do more, and I am grateful for that, but I also have to be realistic about my time and all the balls I juggle with life, being a mum and entrepreneur. Do what you can do and let go of the expectations that we need to be superwomen or superman.

Stress-relieving exercises

Find the exercise type that works for you. That can change over time or even over the week. Sometimes we need more adrenaline and oxygen burning exercises like cardio or other times we need to load the body with weights. 

Then there are times when we need to do more restorative exercise practices like Yoga, especially when we have been in times of stress. It’s ok to slow down with movement to allow our physiology to reset in times of stress. Even the week before a woman menstruates, we need to listen in to the body and often need to do more gentle exercise. 

Just move 

I love trying new forms of exercise to see how my body responds. This week I went rock climbing for the 2nd time in my life and loved it, and tonight I am off to ecstatic dance to let out all the week, months, year stresses that have been building up. 

What is important is consistency. Little and often adds up. We don’t all need to be Ironmen or women or run a marathon every week. Sometimes it can be getting up more frequently from your desk while at work or taking the stairs each day that can make the difference. Don’t forget to reach out to people that know this area such as coaches, trainers and physios to help keep you on track or enlist a friend to work together.

What new exercise routine will you start this new year?

Breathing habits that reduce stress

As a breathing coach, I spend a lot of my days working with businesses teaching people how to change the way they breathe in the moment. If I had one tip for people to do when they are working, it would be to pause and exhale. I know it sounds simple, but most of us get stuck in on an inhale breath with the rib cage hyperinflated. 

Take a long breath out of your mouth just once to release the pressure and drop the chest. You will notice the ribs drop down and your neck and throat can relax. Sometimes that quick pause and conscious moment to exhale and reset can help your body let go and put the brake pedal on the body. 

Remember, without fail exhale

To learn more about how you can change your breathing pattern at work to help reduce the stress, check out the Breathe Right & Reduce Your Stress online course which has a full day of the dedicated to breathing at work. I will share more tips over the next few blogs as part of this series.

Handling stress at work

I talk a lot about our physiology driving our nervous system and mind. I believe  when we stop, pause and connect with what’s happening internally, we become much more aware of the turmoil, tension and emotions we’ve been collecting along the way. Taking the time to set yourself up for the day can make it that much easier to learn to pause and check-in with yourself throughout the day.

Take a moment now to reflect on what habits you may need to reset to help manage your stress. Many of the triggers are within your control. Learning to increase your stress bandwidth is key to helping you deal with chronic work stress as well as acute life trauma. Often we only put these practices in place when we hit a mental, emotional or physical roadblock. 

I encourage you not to be like I used to be, fire fighting stress, pushing through with my concrete pill (lucky I have evolved from my hand brake moments that forced me to reassess how I live my life). Instead, reflect on what you can do now to change your body’s reaction to stress. You never know, it may just help you sleep better, reduce pain, increase energy and lengthen your life. 

What is your workplace doing in 2020 to deal with workplace stress? 

Emma Ferris is as a breathing coach, workplace wellness educator and physiotherapist working to create change in how businesses and individuals manage stress. Emma runs workplace wellness workshops around New Zealand and is the creator of Breathe Right & Reduce Your Stress  30-day online breathing course. Drawing on a 15-year career in physiotherapy, workplace education and stress management, she is teaching the world to find its calm and to stress less at The Breath Effect.  

Emma Ferris Breath Coach

Workplace Wellness & Stress Reduction Workshops

If your business is ready for a stress reduction makeover then it’s time to have Emma at The Breath Effect tailor a specific workplace wellness programme specifically for your needs. For more information about Workplace Wellness Workshops contact Emma.