Take a leaf out of the office wellness trend and bring a bit of zen to your nine-to-five with these calming tips and tricks
It’s estimated more than 11 million working days are lost each year due to stress at work, and with office cultures normalising out-of-hours working, even our downtime is being squeezed. While many forward-thinking employers have embraced ‘mindfulness pods’, ‘zen rooms’ and on-site gyms to calm their workforce, for many of us the workplace has become a war zone for our mental health and wellbeing.
Find some downtime at your desk (without the need for a meditation stool) with these quick-fix wellbeing wonders. After all, just 10-20 minutes of mindful exercises per day has been shown to improve mood, decrease stress, lower blood pressure and even change the shape of your brain after just three weeks.
While we might all wish we had a punch bag at the office for those stressful moments, wellbeing expert Dominique Antiglio, from BeSophro (be-sophro.co.uk) suggests doing sophrology, a type of moving meditation. “One of the techniques we use is called ‘the pump’ and it’s great for when you need immediate stress relief,” says Dominique. “Find a quiet place where you can stand tall. Let your arms fall straight and clench your fists. Exhale through your mouth, inhale through your nose and hold the breath. As you hold the breath, pump both of your shoulders up and down until you need to exhale again. As you exhale vigorously, relax your arms and hands completely, allowing all tension and tightness to drain through the arms and hands. Repeat until you notice you feel rebalanced.”
If you can’t find a private spot to escape, try doing a seated body scan at your desk. “Halfclose your eyes and breathe in deeply, so that your diaphragm rises on the inhale and dips on the exhale,” says psychologist Dr Meg Arroll. “Shift your attention to one foot and notice how it feels. Observe any sensations in your toes – the warmth of your sock, the pressure of your shoe. Systematically scan each foot, then your legs, moving up the body until you reach your head, making sure to finish on a deep exhale. It can be helpful to note down how stressed or anxious you’re feeling before and after, so you can see how getting in touch with your physical sensations can calm the mind.”
We might all groan at the idea of a team building exercise, but fostering team spirit has been shown to increase worker happiness, motivation, engagement and, crucially, reduce stress. “Try running a walking challenge with your colleagues to see who can do the most steps in a week (measured with a tracking device such as a FitBit) and award a little prize for the winner,” suggests chartered psychologist Fiona Murden, author of professional profiling book Defining You.
Presentation imminent? Have to chat with a difficult colleague? If you need a five-minute pick-me-up, try standing differently. “The very best and quickest way to deal with a stressful moment is to boost testosterone levels with a power pose,” says Dr Arroll. “Go to the loo or another private place and stand with your feet firmly anchored to the ground. Put your hands on your hips, eyes facing forward, shoulders back, and visualise yourself as the strong, competent superhuman you are. This can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improve confidence. Do this for two minutes – that’s all the time it takes.”
Staying calm under pressure could be as easy as saying STOP, advises Jonny Say, mindfulness coach at workplace wellness consultants MobFit (mobfit.uk). “This short, 2-5 minute practice has four stages that include many of the principles of mindfulness. Stop: pause what you are doing, or mentally slow down; Take a deep breath or a number of deep breaths. Observe what the ‘weather’ is like in your body and mind, and proceed with a meaningful activity, whether that’s work or a conversation, bringing your attention to the present moment. This can help you cope with challenging emotions and move out of automatic pilot, so you can enjoy what you’re doing more fully.”
Our minds may feel overstretched at work, but rarely do we give a thought to stretching our bodies. “Sit up straight in your chair and do some sitting cat poses stretching the small of your back forward and backwards,” says hypnotherapist, life coach and occupational psychologist Jivan Dempsey (jivandempsey.com). Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist and the author of The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness, likes to add a gratitude stretch, too. “As I stretch my arms up, I think about one person to whom I am grateful (it can even be me for getting through a tough day!) and, as I stretch my legs, I think about one action I’m looking forward to in my day,” she says.
“Try to do one compassionate thing for yourself and for somebody else each day, even if you don’t feel like it. It actually doesn’t matter what you do (or even if it’s genuine) it still has a positive impact on your brain!” says Fiona. “Hold the door open for someone, even if they look grumpy; offer someone a lift, even if you prefer your own company; compliment someone, even if they only ever criticise,” she says. “Just like physical exercise, regular practice helps ‘feed’ new and different neural pathways in your brain.”
Stress can easily prevent the creative juices flowing because the flight or fight response produces cortisol, which inhibits the creativityboosting effects of serotonin. According to a study by Cornell University, just two minutes of movement every half an hour can lower blood sugar, reduce weight and improve concentration.
“Take movement breaks,” says Angela Steel, CEO of SuperWellness, a company specialising in corporate nutrition and wellbeing (superwellness.co.uk). “It doesn’t have to be a full-blown yoga class – a research team at Stanford found that at least 80 percent of participants across several studies were more creative when walking than sitting.”
And pay attention to how it feels to go for a walk, advises Rob Smith, founder of MobFit. “What’s going on around you? What does it smell like? What sounds can you hear? Notice how it feels to walk. We so often go through the motions but paying attention can put things into perspective, calm you down and re-energise you for the afternoon stint.”
Sometimes just thinking about where you would like to be can get you there. “The power of visualisation should not be underestimated,” says Dempsey. “Think about a happy, calm place you have a deep connection with and consider what colours you see, what emotions it brings up and where these emotions connect with your body. It will become a place to anchor yourself every time you feel stressed.”
Meditating at work might seem a little difficult, so consider making more of your afternoon cuppa. “Hold a mug of tea and take some calming breaths in and out. Really connect with the warmth against your hands and breathe in the aromas of the tea. Take very small sips, moving the tea around your mouth a little before swallowing, and being really curious about the taste, flavours and feel in your mouth. Pause between each mouthful and check in with how you’re feeling,” says meditation teacher and mindful cooking guide Meredith Whitely (foodatheart.co.uk). “No one will ever know you’re calming your parasympathetic nervous system!”
Tensing and relaxing pairs of muscles such as the eyes, shoulders, hands, legs and feet, or ‘paired muscle relaxation’, can help you beat stress before it strikes. “Notice the difference in sensations in different parts of the body, particularly the jaw, and notice what your body feels like tensed and at rest,” says Dr Tang. “You may be able to recognise bodily sensations that denote stress before you fully realise that you are under pressure.”
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