5 Mindfulness Exercises You Can Do at Work to Manage Stress
If you’re living with a chronic condition, you probably know that stress can lead to increased flares. And you probably also know that stress is sometimes unavoidable—especially at work.
In fact, a recent report from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health cites a Northwestern National Life survey in which 40 percent of workers describe their jobs as very or extremely stressful and 25 percent view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
The relationship between stress and autoimmune disorders is complicated, says board-certified family medicine physician Felecia Sumner, D.O., who has psoriasis and authored the book Fill Your Cup, a guide to managing stress. “Part of it is that stress lowers your immune-system function and also causes the release of many inflammatory chemicals, which basically send signals to your immune system to go haywire.”
Sumner explains that the key to reducing stress isn’t to avoid it completely but to find ways to deal with it in a productive and positive manner.
“When we practice meditation, we learn a valuable skill called mindfulness,” Sumner says. “Mindfulness is the ability to respond—and not react—to our surroundings as well as our impulses. Meditation increases our mindfulness by instructing us to immerse ourselves fully in the present moment, and not to be overwhelmed by life’s stressors.”
Not sure where to start? There are several ways to practice mindfulness throughout your day. These expert-recommended exercises and techniques are simple, quick, and can even be done at your desk or on a work break.
“Sometimes, there’s not a ton of free time at work to do deep meditation,” Sumner says. “But the good news is that just five minutes a day can make a major difference.”
Sumner likes to do mini-relaxation exercises throughout her day to keep her stress levels down. “Mini-relaxation exercises help reduce anxiety and tension immediately,” she says. You can keep your eyes open or closed. Plus, you can do them anytime, anywhere, and no one will even know that you’re doing them!
Doing a mini-relaxation exercise is simple, Sumner says. “Put your hand just below your navel. Take a deep breath, bringing the air in through your nose and out through your mouth,” she instructs. “You should feel your stomach rising about an inch as you breathe in, falling about an inch as you breathe out. This is called diaphragmatic breathing.”
If diaphragmatic breathing is difficult for you at first, Sumner suggests practicing it while lying on your back, so you can pay better attention to this rise and fall and become more aware of your breathing. Try to remember to relax your stomach muscles as you do so.
Another variation, she says, is to count very slowly to four as you inhale, then count backwards very slowly from four to one as you exhale.
Emotional Freedom Technique
The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is also referred to as tapping. It “releases the trapped energy, or qi, which is our life force,” according to Renetta D. Weaver, LCSW and certified neuroscience coach.
Weaver says that by unblocking this energy, we become better able to maintain inner balance, even in the midst of stress. And research backs up the benefits of EFT for depression, anxiety, even helping military veterans work through PTSD. The technique only requires your own fingertips to gently tap on specific areas of the body.
Weaver explains that the areas you should consider tapping include:
- The side of the hand, where the pinky finger is
- The crown of the head
- The inner eyebrows
- The outside corners of your eyes
- The underarm area—where a tank top might cut
- Under the eye
- Below the nose
- Under the mouth
- Along the clavicle (collarbone)
Tap each of these locations five to seven times each.
“Before starting, measure your level of stress on a scale of zero to 10,” Weaver suggests. “Record your number and start tapping. While tapping, state, ‘Even though (name the stress) is happening, I still fully love and accept myself.’”
Do this three times. If you ask yourself what your stress level is after each time; the numbers should go down. “Continue to do this until symptoms resolve,” Weaver recommends.
If you want to better connect to the present, Weaver says daily journaling is a practice that can help you accomplish that. Research backs this up, with multiple studies finding benefits of stress reduction and improved management of chronic health conditions from journaling.
If you’ve never considered journaling before, start by setting aside five minutes of your day, every day, to write down your thoughts. The University of Rochester Medical Center says you can write whatever you feel like writing, so long as you set aside the time every day to commit to this practice.
Weaver says grounding exercises can also help us remain present and keep stress at bay. This is a little sensory self-check you can do throughout the day. “Remind yourself you are here now and focus on what you can see, what you hear, what you taste, and what you feel,” instructs Weaver.
If you like the idea of journaling but don’t know where to begin, try starting with what you’re grateful for—gratitude journaling has been found to have positive effects, including reducing inflammation in one study.
“Developing a daily gratitude practice has worked wonders for my clients,” says certified health coach Tiffany Stuart, who teaches mindfulness workshops to help reduce stress and negative thinking.
This doesn’t just have to be done through journaling, however. You could start a habit of saying out loud what you are grateful for at the start and end of each day. Or a tradition of doing so before family meals.
“It may sound cliché,” Stuart goes on to explain, “but being able to counter looping stressful thoughts with a list of three to five things you can truly connect with and feel internal gratitude for at the very minute the stress starts creeping up can help you become more present.”
Even better, Stuart says, this is an exercise that can be tailored to almost any age or circumstance.
Try it for yourself. Begin and end each day with writing down something you’re grateful for, and then try to reflect back on those lists in moments of high stress. You can also select a daily Thank activity from the Happify app to track your gratitude over time.
While stress may be unavoidable, Weaver says there are always ways we as individuals can deal with the stress that comes our way. And participating in the activities that help us manage stress is an act of self-care we all should be engaging in. Popular options include exercise, yoga, hobbies, and spending time with family and friends.
When in doubt, Weaver says that petting an animal can also reduce stress (so long as you’re not allergic, of course)—so, if nothing else seems to work, take a trip to a local animal shelter on your next lunch break and see if it’s in need of volunteers.