Hans Selye, a pioneer of modern stress research, famously said it isn't stress that kills us, but our reactions to it.
Because stress is our body's response to pressure and threats. It helps our bodies meet the challenges it is facing. That’s why when we encounter difficult situations or feel overwhelmed, our body starts releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
It's a primitive survival technique, but today we are surrounded by multiple stressors: the news headlines, road rage, work pressures, traffic jams, public transport, debt, anxiety (we could go on…). Consequently, our bodies are all too often in 'response to stress' mode.
In 2018, 74% of 4,619 people surveyed reported to have felt so stressed that they were overwhelmed or unable to cope.
But we can learn to manage stress and live a calmer existence. Here, we've gathered some of the best known stress-busting techniques to help you to keep everything under control and make your working life a bit more harmonious:
- Let go of what you cannot control
- Learn the art of delegation
- Build exercise into your daily routine
- Try breathing exercises or meditation
- Get outdoors, preferably somewhere green
- Shorten your working hours
- Build in breaks
- Learn new skills
- Share the emotional load
- Know when to stop
Managing your stress levels will make you more productive at work, but it will also lead to a more enjoyable life - and even a longer life.
Research has shown a growing amount of evidence linking workplace stress contributing towards coronary vascular and heart disease.
Minimizing the impact of stress requires a practical outlook and a driven approach; so, here are some of our tried and tested stress-busting habits.
1. Let go of what you cannot control
"You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength."
Some ideas and philosophies are so effective they stand the test of time. Stoicism is one such school of thought. It teaches us that we cannot control all aspects of our lives and there will always be setbacks and circumstances that we cannot prevent. But, what we can change are our minds, our ideas and our reactions to the world around us.
While we can all pick sides, and agree or disagree (privately and publicly) with elected leaders, we can't do much about the socio-political or economic state of the world, which means that energy and time spent raging against those systems is simply causing stress without any return. You might as well head to the beach and command the tide to stop.
Give in to the idea that you operate within a system over which you have little power, and you may feel less stressed.
2. Learn the art of delegation
"Fine, I'll do it myself."
One of the worst pieces of common wisdom floating about is that if you want a job done right, you should do it yourself.
Every great business success story is built on the brilliance and assistance of others working hard in the background. They might not make the headlines or get the column inches, but Steve Jobs wouldn’t have been anyone without crack Team Apple.
97% of managers feel they face work overload. The source of this problem may lie in a failure to delegate tasks effectively.
Delegation is about understanding one of the most important concepts in business: you are not good at everything. Some things will be done better by others, even if you don’t see it that way.
Another piece of common wisdom that IS worth remembering is this: perfect is the enemy of good. The endless pursuit of ensuring every element of your business and the work you send off is perfect is slowing you down, demoralizing your team and causing pointless levels of stress. Learn to recognize when good enough is good enough.
3. Build exercise into your daily routine
"You have to exercise, or at some point you'll just break down."
There are countless studies that show a connection between exercise and improved mental health. The effect can be so pronounced that highly successful, busy people, including Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, prioritize exercise.
Time spent being sedentary is linked to adverse mental health and even light-intensity physical activity is linked with lower risk of psychological distress.
The hardest part of exercise, usually, is showing up. But if you can get your kit on and get outside for a run, or go to a class, the benefits will far outweigh that early struggle and the return on investment of your time and energy will be massive for your mental health and drive.
4. Breathing exercises & meditation
"Meditation is offering your genuine presence to yourself in every moment."
Meditation is scientifically proven to change the volume of our brains after eight weeks of regular practice. The scientist behind this study, Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, found that meditation actually made the amygdala – the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general - smaller in a group of people undergoing a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.
MRI scans displayed how practitioners of mindfulness have decreased grey matter volume in the amygdala, which would result in reduced stress levels.
To build regular meditation practice into your day, check out apps like Headspace, Calm, Mindfulness and Insight Timer. These provide short, guided meditations to help clear your head and quickly take you away from the buzzing thoughts of projects and deadlines.
5. Get outdoors, preferably somewhere green
"All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking."
It is easy to get caught up in a multi-screen existence, relaxing after a day on your laptop with a Netflix binge or video games. Screens emit blue light, which disrupts our circadian rhythms (aka our internal body clocks). This can hamper sleep which can, in turn, increase stress levels.
14 different studies found that, when contrasted with an urban setting, as little as 10 min of sitting or walking in a diverse array of natural settings significantly and positively impacted defined psychological and physiological markers of mental well-being.
While it is difficult to understand exactly why, there are plenty of studies that show simply spending some time in leafy, green spaces does wonders for reducing stress. Research has found that it even helps us perform tasks better.
The benefits of immersing ourselves in nature is understood the world over. The Japanese even have a word for it: 'shinrin yoku', which means 'forest bathing'. It's a form of nature therapy that has been found to reduce blood pressure, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, among other benefits.
6. Shorten your working hours
"We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in."
One of the best ways we can reduce the stress levels in our lives is simply to work shorter hours. This gives us more time to spend doing the things we love with the people we care about.
Committed entrepreneurs can find this idea preposterous. But working less doesn't mean being less productive – often it's quite the opposite. Doing quality work in highly productive stints is far more effective than forcing yourself to sit in front of your computer until you've finished a task you've been procrastinating over.
A meta-analysis of 46 papers found a link between working over 50-hours a week and reduced mental health, difficulties in sleeping and an increase in health problems.
The 40-hour work week was something fought for by labor unions across the world to stop the exploitation of workers in large factories. It was not meant to be the measuring stick for the working week. In fact, one of the greatest economists of the last century, John Maynard Keynes, believed we would be working 15-hour weeks by now.
7. Build in breaks
"There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither."
In a landmark study, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou and Vanessa Singh used an MRI scanner to investigate what the brain was doing during moments of 'wakeful rest'. They found the brain was not simply idle but buzzing with as much activity as when we focus.
The belief is that when the brain is allowed to wander it is consolidating our memories, planning for future events and preparing itself. This has been termed 'constructive internal reflection' and it's something our brains need to do.
Taking a lunch break in the middle of the day has an important long-term impact on vigor in the workplace, boosts energy levels and provides needed time for internal recovery.
More research found that humans, in accordance with ultradian rhythms, can only really focus for 90-minute intervals before needing a 15-minute break.
Don't fight nature. To be highly efficient and beat stress means committing to breaks as seriously as you commit to work.
8. Learn new skills
"That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way."
Leaders of health services around the world say learning new skills can improve our mental wellbeing by boosting self-confidence and raising self-esteem, helping us to build a sense of purpose and new connections with other people.
This isn't (necessarily) about mastering Excel or gaining a project management qualification. Forget work and pick something that inspires and interests you - that you've always wanted to learn more about, or know how to do, from metalwork to piano to Spanish to ballet.
9. Share the emotional load
"What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation."
Mental health charity Mind explains that if you often struggle to manage feelings of stress, you might develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression. At the same time, mental health problems can also be a cause of stress. In other words, it's a vicious circle.
Admitting you're stressed or struggling to cope can be incredibly hard (men are especially bad at this). Yet talking to a family member, trusted friend or a therapist can help us cope and work through the stress triggers that are affecting us. Feeling listened to and reassured can make a huge difference.
Men are more likely to keep work-related mental health problems to themselves, with 35% of men admitting to keeping struggles to themselves compared to 26% of women.
62% of employees feel comfortable talking about stress in the workplace.
10. Know when to stop
"Workaholics are addicted to activity; super achievers are committed to results."
Entrepreneurs still wear their excessive working hours like a badge of honor. Yet hours in are not proportional to work finished.
Workers in Mexico, South Korea, and Greece have some of the longest annual shifts on the planet, but their GDP per hour is among the lowest. As productivity increases, working hours decrease.
Work around your most productive hours. At the end of your working day, shut the door – physically and mentally. Enjoy the life that you are working so hard to have.