How to deal with work stress in 5 minutes or less
One secret to instant calm and focus, notes author Lynne Everatt, is to breathe like a Navy SEAL.
No doubt about it, if you’re like most Americans, you’ve experienced work stress. More than half (55%) of us reported “high stress” in Gallup’s recent poll of 1,000 U.S. employees on this topic, while 45% said they felt worried “a lot of the day,” and 22% said the same of anger.
“It’s as if our minds and bodies were not designed for the pressures of 21st-century life,” says Lynne Everatt, co-author (with Addie Greco-Sanchez) of The 5-Minute Recharge: 31 Proven Strategies to Refresh, Reset, and Become the Boss of Your Day. “Our sedentary, technology-driven, and sleep-deprived lives have strayed so far from what our minds and bodies crave, we need to take an active role in caring for our mental and physical well-being.”
It doesn’t help that questionable health advice is so easily available on the Internet, sometimes offered by business titans or celebrities. “[Chinese billionaire CEO of Alibaba] Jack Ma was all over the web advocating what he calls a ‘9-9-6’ schedule as the key to success, meaning working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week,” observes Everatt. “People read that and think, ‘Well, he’s a billionaire, so he must know.’ But for most people, it’s terrible advice. It’s a recipe for burnout.”
By contrast, Everatt, who describes herself as a “recovering MBA,” and her mental-health-expert co-author Greco-Sanchez, based The 5-Minute Recharge on reams of global research, discovering techniques for managing stress that have been proven effective for large numbers of non-billionaires—and that are “gentle, not extreme,” Everatt says. “We wanted to take all the reliable information that’s out there and make it easily accessible in one place.”
Each of the 31 stress-management techniques in the book is presented as an exercise that takes only a few minutes but “can make all the difference in your day,” she adds. “We hope readers will try each one, figure out which ones work best for them, and turn those into habits.”
Monster recently spoke with Everatt about how to manage stress, both at work and in a job hunt.
Q. You write about the benefits of taking a few minutes to meditate. But what if you’ve tried that and you’re just not good at it?
A. Meditation is a great stress reliever, but it can be really hard to tune out distractions and quiet our thoughts, even for just a few minutes. If you struggle with that, you might try what’s called guided meditation, where someone else speaks to you, putting words in your mind that you can focus on. This is easy to find online for free. My favorite site is Tara Brach’s. Researchers at UCLA are another good source.
Q. Why should we all breathe like Navy SEALs?
A. Our bodies have a natural relaxation response that enables us to think more clearly and perform better under pressure. Breathing deeply, as SEALs are trained to do, triggers that. Deep breathing, inhaling and exhaling all the way down in your diaphragm—instead of the shallow, top-of-the-chest breaths we usually take—stimulates the vagus nerve in our midsection, which in turn fires up the sympathetic nervous system. The book tells how to practice this in two different ways, step by step, but you can also watch a demonstration by former SEAL Mark Divine on YouTube.
Q. The book has a chapter called “What Would George Clooney Do?” that’s not really about him at all. Could you explain?
A. The idea is, when you’re stressing over a difficult problem, think of someone you’d want to advise you on it—and then try to imagine what that person would say. I happen to like picturing Clooney, just because, but you could envision anyone. A lot of academic research shows that people are often objectively better at solving someone else’s problems than their own. So, giving advice as if you were an observer, rather than a participant, is what psychologists call self-distancing. It gives you the emotional space to get a clearer view of the situation so you can see how to resolve it.
Q. Job searches are notoriously stressful. What would you suggest someone do before an important job interview?
A. You want to go into an interview with a positive and expectant frame of mind, and one way to create that is to jot down a list of everything in your life you’re grateful for—including the opportunity to interview for this job! You can also use music. Athletes often use their own special playlist to get “in the zone.” It could be calming or energetic, depending on the music you choose, but it can be a powerful antidote to stress.
Q. One surprising stress-beater you recommend is to be more curious and ask more questions. Why?
A. Relationships are a huge buffer against the effects of stress in our lives, and asking a lot of questions is one of the best ways to build stronger relationships. This applies to networking too. Next time you meet someone, instead of the usual question, “What do you do?,” try saying, “Tell me about yourself.” It’s a great way to find out what really makes someone tick. Each of us has something we’re passionate about, something we love to talk about, and it may have little or nothing to do with work.
In a job interview, the most important question you can ask is, “What kind of person succeeds here?” Then listen carefully and ask yourself, “Is that me? Would I fit in and thrive here?” If your honest answer is “no,” you’d be smart to keep looking.
Find the source of your stress
Often, we suffer from stress but can't pinpoint the cause. Whereas other times we know exactly what the culprit is: our jobs. When that happens the best stress-management technique is to find a new workplace. Need help with that? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you'll get weekly emails filled with expert career advice and job listings in your area. You can also post up to five versions of your resume, depending on the types of jobs you're looking for. Hiring managers are searching for talent on Monster every day. Knowing that can help you relax and find a new gig that won't stress you out.
Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1994. She is a columnist for Fortune.com and author of If My Career’s On the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?