Tips for Keeping Work Stress, Anxiety, and Burnout at Bay

Chronic work stress can have serious health consequences. Take steps to make sure you don't let things get out of control.

Are headaches, chronic fatigue, and poor sleep the norm for you rather than an occasional setback? These classic stress symptoms are telltale signs that something needs to change.

Stress is a physical and hormonal chain reaction that, once triggered, can potentially speed up the aging process and weaken the immune system, as well as contribute to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune diseases. And according to a survey from the American Psychological Association, more than one third of workers in this country experience chronic work stress.

What gives? We’re doing more at work with fewer resources, notes Vicki Hess, RN and author of Shift to Professional Paradise: 5 Steps to Less Stress, More Energy, and Remarkable Results at Work. Other job stressors include increased demands on time and the pressure to be plugged in around the clock, according to Hess and Terry Beehr, PhD, director of the Industrial and Organizational Program at Central Michigan University. The good news is that there are steps you can take to keep your stress at bay. Here are six things that can alleviate stress at work:

Learn to say no.

Knowing your limits and voicing them can actually earn you more respect. “Have confidence in your ‘no’ when you think it’s the right decision, even though it may not be the most popular one,” says life coach Suzy Greaves. “In the long term, your ability to say no will be one of your most valuable attributes.” But don’t just say no willy-nilly. Take the time to assess your current workload, assigning time commitments to each task. You want to outline your reasons for saying no in a precise, measurable way, and then offer up solutions so your boss sees that you’re not just trying to leave him or her high and dry.

Structure your day to include breaks.

Working for over eight hours straight isn’t healthy. “Productivity actually goes down, stress levels go up, and you have very little energy left over for your family,” says Sharon Melnick, PhD, a business psychologist and author of Success Under Stress. Our minds and bodies require periods of rest to rejuvenate and fuel us for optimal productivity. That means scheduling walks, desk stretching, or breathing exercises and ranking them just as high as the work priorities in your day. “Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project has shown that if we have intense concentration for about 90 minutes, followed by a brief period of recovery, we can clear the buildup of stress and rejuvenate ourselves,” she says.

Change your perspective.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re the “yes” person in the office. It’s only natural to want to be liked, and some of us fear that saying no will bump us down on the respect meter. “Stress is not a reaction to an event but rather to how you interpret the event,” says Allan R. Cohen, PsyD. Living in constant stress heightens your senses and increases adrenaline, a hyperactive state that is not sustainable in the long term. Changing your outlook will help set the kinds of limits at work that will help reduce stress, anxiety, and overwork. Cohen suggests countering your fear with more positive thoughts, like “If they didn’t like me, they wouldn’t have asked me to do the task in the first place.”

Let your breath guide you.

It may sound overly simple, but there’s real truth in how your breath correlates to how your whole body functions. Deep breathing increases the oxygen in your blood, which relaxes your muscles. “When you feel frustrated or angry, it’s a heated feeling in your body that can cause you to react,” says Melnick. She suggests a cooling breath technique: Take a breath in like you are sipping through a straw and then breathe out normally through your nose. You should feel a cooling, drying sensation over the top of your tongue that will help calm you. If you’re the type who gets jittery before presentations, Melnick suggests quelling your anxiety by positioning your thumb on the side of your middle finger and applying pressure. This stimulates an acupressure point that regulates your blood pressure.

Feed your body.

Proper sleep, healthy eating habits, and regular physical activity are key to keeping your body in check. Processed foods can cause us to feel anxious, so build a diet of mostly whole foods. Exercise releases feel-good, stress-relieving chemicals. And sleeping soundly can help you solve problems and even boost your intelligence.

Feed your mind.

In her book, Hess talks about creating a “professional paradise” by identifying and maintaining control over negative thoughts and emotions. This is what we’d call the mind-over-matter method. Don’t discount the benefits of yoga and meditation in achieving this state. Mayo Clinic quotes a number of studies that have proven their ability to help manage stress. You can also keep your mind stimulated with creative activities and social interactions with friends — both positive experiences that will further manage stress.

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