Calm within the storm: Six mindful practices that can reduce stress during your workday

by Erin Wheeler, LCSW, Psychotherapist at Wildflower Center for Emotional Health       

There is no denying that we are a nation of busy-bodies and workaholics.  As a therapist, I have worked with countless overstressed employees and seen how unchecked work stress can lead to burnout or troubling performance issues.  At its worst, work stress can contribute to the development of physical illness, substance abuse problems, and mental health issues such as clinical depression.  It is my belief that our collective reluctance to value practicing self-care in the workplace is a significant contributor to work stress in America.  With pressure to be always productive, taking time to go to the bathroom, breathe, or even eat a snack, can feel like a sacrifice.  Yet the opportunities we create during the workday to anchor ourselves in the present moment (and then address our needs) are critical to our long-term mental wellbeing.  Below are some practical ideas for using mindfulness to attune to your needs throughout the workday.

1. On your way to work:

Often our commute to work is filled with worry about what awaits us later in the day, or with rumination over difficult situations in the past.  As psychologist and author Steven Hayes points out, our minds are like time machines, constantly pulling us into the future and the past.  However, we have the power to use this transitional time to connect with the present moment, thereby setting the mood for the rest of the day.  Whether you are on the bus or in the car, take time to notice new things in your environment.  Try noticing 3 new things through each of these senses: touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste.  If you have a cup of coffee, practice connecting with all of these senses separately as you take a slow sip.  Whenever a thought pops into your head that seeks to pull your focus away, practice gently acknowledging this thought's presence and then return your attention back to your senses.  If this happens 100 times, that's ok.  The point of the exercise is not to be free of thoughts, it is about learning how to connect to the present despite them.  

2. Arriving at your desk:

Sitting down at your desk can elicit a whole host of difficult emotions; uncertainty, insecurity, helplessness, dread, etc.  See if you can intentionally use this moment as a time for connecting to the present moment.  Imagine that you are a ship dropping its anchor.  Close your eyes and focus on your breathing for 1-2 minutes.  Feel the air coming in and out of your lungs.  As with the previous exercise, notice any thoughts, sensations or feelings that arise and then gently try to return your focus back to your breathing.  It might be helpful to recite a mantra for the rest of the day that feels empowering, but also compassionate.  One example could be:  "I will try to take on whatever challenges arise today with flexibility and willingness."  

3. When planning your day:

Once you've grounded yourself at your desk, you will likely have to shift your awareness to planning your day.  This time can be overwhelming because our minds often like to treat all tasks as equally urgent, making it hard to prioritize one task over another.  We can also have difficulty prioritizing certain tasks because the thought of trying to carry them out generates fears of not being enough (not being smart enough, fast enough, creative enough, etc.).  In response to these fears, people frequently find themselves procrastinating (avoiding) some tasks over others.  

So as you review your to-do list for the day, try to intentionally notice which parts of the list elicit feelings of anxiety or hesitation.  Notice any urges to do some tasks over others and be curious about why certain tasks elicit these different responses.  Once you've tuned into your reactions to the items on your list, put a star next to any tasks you feel an urge to avoid or which give rise to difficult emotions.  Ask yourself: would be willing to start with one of those tasks instead of pushing it off until later?  If you you are willing, reward yourself afterwards with whatever feels helpful, whether it is taking 3 minutes to look at kittens on the Internet or walking to the kitchen to chat with co-workers.  By exposing yourself to negative emotions associated with a certain task and accomplishing it anyway, you will build confidence in your ability to "show up" to any challenge despite the urge to run away.  

4. Every hour:

Do you find that hours can fly by at work without realizing it?  Most people have this experience. When this happens, it may mean that you are unaware of your own basic needs. Clients regularly share with me, "I can't believe I forgot to eat today," or "I didn't even realize my neck was hurting so bad until I got up to go home." Ignoring these needs can leave us feeling even more depleted, especially as we get closer to the weekend.  As an antidote, more and more people are using technology to help themselves cultivate self-awareness throughout the day.  One way to do this is to set your phone or Fitbit to alert you every hour to check in with yourself and connect with the present moment.  Some helpful steps during these check-ins are:

    1.  Give yourself permission to stop what you are doing
    2. Turn your attention to your breathing.  Take 4 deep breaths, imagining that with each exhale you are letting go of stress                 that has accumulated up to this moment.
    3. Scan your body from your feet to your head for any tension or signals of need (like hunger, thirst, or needing to use                       the bathroom, etc.)
    4. Ask what you can do to address these needs and give yourself permission to take action (stretch, eat, take some more                  deep breaths, go for a walk around the office).

5. During lunch:

More and more of my clients admit that they are not taking time for lunch, either because they are working through their lunch break or eating at their desks.  Research shows that only 1 in 5 people step away for a midday meal.  Taking a lunch break (especially if you are able to leave your workspace) can be a crucial practice that will allow your day to feel sustainable.  If you are able to go outside, practice bringing mindfulness into your walk by simply trying to be aware of each step and the feeling of your feet connecting with the pavement.  Connect further with your current experience by looking around you and noticing things in your environment that you've never acknowledged before.  If any thoughts try to hook you away from the present moment, just notice them and gently return to this sequence of grounding yourself in your walk.

6. At the end of the day:

How many times have you found yourself scrambling to finish everything and rushing out the door?  These can be the days when we feel like every other driver on the way home is a certified jerk, when we walk through the front door still thinking about what remains on our work to-do list, or when everything at home feels like just another demand for our attention/energy.  Bringing mindfulness into the end of the day means generating an opportunity to work smarter in the last hours that you have available and then letting go once work is over.

As you get closer to the end of the workday (maybe an hour or half hour before), try setting aside time to stop and attune to what tasks feel realistic to accomplish before leaving.  What can be done the next day?  What is most important to get done now?  Once you've accomplished what is possible, try telling yourself with compassion that you are human and there will always be another task that will go unfinished.  As you walk out that door, remind yourself of your values around family or life outside of work.  If this feels difficult, imagine that your 80-year-old self is looking back at this time in your life.  How would your 80-year-old self feel about how you spend your evenings outside of work?  Looking back, what would your 80-year-old self feel is the most meaningful or successful use of this time?  What would feel like a waste? This act of clarifying your values (and reminding yourself of them each day) will motivate you to carry out the important process of letting-go and fully engaging in your life at home.

Some jobs will always be more stressful and draining than others.  Sometimes the demands placed upon us will be unrealistic and even damaging.  By using mindfulness tools to ground ourselves throughout the day we can develop the sense that we are intentionally steering our own ship (as opposed to being tossed around aimlessly at the mercy of whatever the next storm turns out to be).  Whether or not we decide to stay or leave our current job, we are investing in our own wellbeing, at this moment and for each moment to come.