What does your work stress feel like? Is it a 100-pound chain securing you to your chair? Is it a handful of coffee-fueled jumping beans in your chest? Is it buckets of ice water sweat, melting you through the chair and into the carpet? Are there tears? That sounds pretty stressful.
And speaking of stress, of course, it's not all bad. Stress can make you perform better and work harder, but sometimes too much of even "good" stress can be overwhelming. And instead of producing android-like efficiency, that stress can lead to flashing fantasies of curling into the fetal position under the desk, familiarizing co-workers with a specific finger or simply walking out the door forever.
Try these solutions below instead. These expert tips will help you find calm, focus and even a little happiness during those stressful "maybe I should just quit" moments.
Switch tasks. "If you have the flexibility to do something else, get into a task that's going to take your attention away from whatever is frustrating you," says David Reiss, a psychiatrist based in San Diego. And this can apply to co-workers, too. Is that email thread with Bob exasperating you? Put it aside. If you've been working on the same project for the last few hours, stewing and mumbling expletives, then guess what? In a few more hours, you'll probably still be stewing and mumbling expletives. If possible, take a break and work on another task. Or ...
Help out. It feels good to be nice, so Gretchen Rubin, author of "The Happiness Project," suggests doing a good deed to ease workplace frustrations. Email a co-worker helpful information, make an introduction or simply lend a hand to whoever is changing the copier paper, she says.
Meditate. Familiar with that workplace contradiction in which you want with all your heart for the day to be over, but simultaneously, you long to stand on your chair and urge everyone to slow the heck down? If only you could unplug the phones, delay the email rate to about one an hour and convince your boss to postpone, well, everything. That 5 p.m. deadline – how about next Monday?
Chances are, you've yet to perfect space-time manipulation (you've just been so busy at work!), and shouting to your colleagues to change pace won't go over well. But there's another way to slow down and refocus: mindful meditation. And just about anyone anywhere can do it. Try this technique called Instachill, from Victor Davich, author of "8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life." First, close your eyes and take a big breath in, and then sigh it out. Now relax, breathing naturally, and "get in touch with your body," as Davich puts it. Locate where in your body you feel stressed – maybe your back, shoulders or neck. Focus on this spot, while allowing those muscles to move naturally. When another thought drifts into your head (and it probably will), gently return your focus to the stress spot, and stay there. After a few minutes, slowly open your eyes and note how you feel now, after you've made yourself slow down. Hopefully, you're feeling slightly less frazzled, and for better or worse, the office is (probably) still standing and your tasks are right there where you left them.
[Read: 3 Meditation Tips for Beginners.]
Stretch. An unfinished report. A poorly timed meeting. Co-worker drama. It just keeps piling on, doesn't it? One thing after another, falling onto your shoulders with heavy thuds, like 50-pound free weights onto a barbell. No wonder you feel tight and achy in your shoulders and neck. Luckily, while stretching the report deadline may be a no-go, stretching your muscles is an easy, effective way to de-stress. Not only is stretching a way to get moving – how long have you been sitting in that same position, anyway? – but it also eases the office tension that's seeped into your muscles. Plus, these stretches might shift your focus onto your breathing and away from that scathing, tell-all exit memo you've been fantasizing about.
Try this move Tara Stiles, instructor behind the ulive.com video series Yoga Rebel, dubs "eagle arms," which she says "releases tension from your shoulders, and hopefully your mind, too." With a slight bend in your elbows, stretch your arms in front of you. Wrap one arm over the other, hook your hands and inhale deeply as you lift your arms straight up over your head. Now exhale. "This is something you can do at your desk sitting down," Stiles says, "Or even in the bathroom stall if you really just want to be alone."
Another stretch for the shoulders, as well as your back and hamstrings: Simply stand straight with your chest open and your arms loose, and take a big breath in. Breathe out as you bend forward, over your legs, with your knees slightly bent. Sway slightly. This stretch "gets the blood flowing to your head, so you feel more refreshed when you roll up to stand," Stiles says, adding that while it's a little more conspicuous than a seated move, "It's nice for when you're picking up a paper clip or something."
Move. Jump up and down, do jumping jacks at your desk or skip around the room, Rubin suggests. "There's something very childlike and energetic about getting those feet off the ground," she says. "And you will feel very goofy if other people can see you, so that will affect your mood as well."
Not feeling particularly goofy? Run up and down the stairs, or go for a 10-minute walk – preferably outside. "Moving around will boost your energy, but being in the sunlight will help even more," Rubin says, pointing out that even on cloudy days, there's more light outside than inside. "That in itself gives you a lift and helps your focus and mood."
Get some perspective. If you're swimming in workplace anxiety, Reiss says it's key to differentiate between stress and abuse. And the line between the two is not always clear, so consider chatting with a third party, such as an human resources staff person or a friend who can be objective and tell it to you straight. "If it's harassment that's disrupting your ability to work, then you have to take appropriately assertive, calm actions." (And that's another article.)
However, if you're facing typical workplace stress – frustrations, disappointments and personality conflicts – consider Reiss' tough love: "That's why they call it work. You don't expect to go there and have fun," he says. "You expect to go there and get paid." It may not be easy, but try hard to solidify boundaries. Remember that your co-workers are not your family members, and when you leave your workplace each day, you should leave your work, too. Focusing on the non-work aspects of your life, such as relationships and hobbies, will help you gain some perspective.
"If it's really miserable, look for something else," Reiss says. "but realize that this is your workplace, not your whole life."