I’m trying to focus on my breathing, but a story assignment keeps bubbling up into my thoughts.
Seated in a quiet, dimly lit room in the health services building at The University of Texas at Austin, I’m attending a meeting of the university’s mindfulness meditation group. There are a handful of people seated nearby, all with their eyes closed, their own attention focused inward, as well.
Despite the peaceful setting, I’m finding it difficult to put work aside, even for this brief group meeting.
I’m not alone in feeling stressed: According to the American Psychological Association, over half of U.S. workers blame stress for lowering their productivity. Job stress costs U.S. businesses an estimated $300 billion each year in absenteeism; turnover; diminished productivity; and medical, legal, and insurance costs.
How did we get so on edge? Why is stress so damaging, both to us and our workplaces? And what can we do to ease its effects? Take a few deep breaths with me and read on.
Hungry Tigers, Angry Bosses
Workers have good reason for feeling stressed out. “Lacking control over your circumstances can cause a lot of stress,” says Assistant Professor of Management Jennifer Whitson. That’s a familiar feeling for many employees in hierarchical organizations, especially during recent years. One 2012 study from the United Kingdom showed that work-related stress increases by 40 percent overall during recessions.
Seeing the boss lose his temper or hearing about impending layoffs may be quite different from a hungry predator chasing our prehistoric ancestors on the African plains, but our bodies still react as they were designed to under those conditions. That’s because we are neurologically programmed to respond to what we view as danger by fighting, fleeing, or freezing, says Dr. Jane Bost, associate director of the university’s Counseling and Mental Health Center.
“Danger could be a paper saber-toothed tiger; it could be a real saber-toothed tiger. The brain doesn’t know the difference,” she says.
John Bartholomew, professor and interim Chair in Kinesiology and Health Education, explains that the body’s stress response provides energy to deal with challenges. “We are engineered to meet physical challenges and not psychological challenges. The problem is we only have one stress response,” says Bartholomew, an expert on how exercise can help us cope with stress. That means that whether it’s a life-or-death struggle or just a work deadline, our bodies get ready to act, with an increase in heart rate, more rapid breathing, and higher blood pressure.
In large doses, that can be unhealthy. Ongoing stress may damage artery walls, according to the American Heart Association. It can also weaken the immune system and lead to headaches or stomach problems.
Stress can be harmful to our work, too. For one thing, it limits our thinking, explains Associate Professor of Marketing Raj Raghunathan, by reducing the portion of the brain we are using. In extreme cases, we may even lose touch with reality. Think your co-workers are conspiring without your knowledge? Whitson’s research has shown how feeling a lack of control can lead people to see things or detect trends or causal relationships that don’t really exist.
Some workers perform well under pressure – investment banking superstars, for example. But, Raghunathan says, “It’s important not to get confused and say that it’s the stress that’s making them so productive. Rather, it’s their ability to handle stress that differentiates them from the common person.”
Shedding Our Stress
How can we also better handle stress? Experts say it’s important to find an activity that can redirect our attention, even if only for a brief time.
“Do something that you find enjoyable. Then, chances are, you’re going to focus on that thing anyway,” says Raghunathan. That focus can help put you in a state of “flow” and create a centered, harmonious mind where external distractions disappear and we lose track of time.
Even a few minutes of small movements at your desk – such as doing a couple of deep knee bends, or tensing and relaxing your muscles – can help take edge off stress, Bartholomew says.
To guard against anticipated stress later that day, Bartholomew recommends upping your exercise, either in time spent (such as taking a long walk) or in intensity (going for a fast run). When you’re expecting a particularly stressful day, such as having a job interview or major presentation scheduled, doing an intense workout beforehand can help you experience less stress when the dreaded event actually happens. (But build in recovery time after the workout, since your core temperature can remain elevated for 20 to 30 minutes after a hard exercise session, leaving you still sweating even after your shower.)
During exercise, we experience an increase in our bodies’ stress response, or sympathetic drive, including a faster heart rate and a rise in blood pressure that directs blood to active areas of body. After exercise, changes in the body kick in as we recover from the intense physical exertion. An increase in our bodies’ complementary parasympathetic drive “brings the body back into balance,” explains Bartholomew.
“It’s hard to feel stress, it’s hard to feel angry, when your body is trying to pull the reins back in and have you relax after a physical task,” he says.
Meditation is another good option. Like exercise, it redirects our attention to the present moment. “You force your mind to focus on a particular object or a particular activity,” Raghunathan says. For beginners, that can involve simply counting to 20 in their heads or paying attention to their own breathing.
And, since he’s a professor, Raghunathan offers up a homework assignment: By regularly meditating, we can build a sort of “muscle memory” that allows us to eventually get into that same mind-set when stress levels are high and it’s harder to get centered.
Bost agrees that focusing on the breath can help. Under stress, we tend to breathe from the upper chest, which can add to stress and lead to hyperventilation. The mental health center’s associate director recommends slowing down and trying to breathe from the diaphragm. Place a hand on your lower abdomen and feel it rise and fall with each inhale and exhale. “You can be sitting in a meeting and just kind of unobtrusively put your hand on your stomach as you’re sitting there,” she says.
When you’re feeling a lack of control, a focus on something you do have control over, however small, can break that negative feedback loop. That may be part of the reason why concentrating on your breathing, even for five minutes, is effective. “That’s five minutes in which you had an achievable goal,” Whitson says.
“In any situation where you lack control, there are going to be other aspects of your life where you still have control,” she says.
Space to Breathe
A few weeks later, having spoken to the experts and made progress on this story assignment, I’ve returned to the mindfulness meditation group. Once again, my eyes are closed and I’m focused inward. Outside thoughts still move into my mind, but I’m finding it a little easier to let them slip away and then refocus my attention. I’m not sure if this is progress, exactly, but when the class ends, I certainly feel calmer. And that seems like a move in the right direction.
Sometimes, maybe all we need is a break from work and a space to breathe.