Managing Stress and Anxiety at Work

We all need stress and anxiety to keep us motivated, energised and alert. Too much, however, can derail us at the times when we most need to have our wits about us and to stay sufficiently calm to deal with the matter at hand.

How is stress caused?

Stress is a natural response to a stimulus either in the environment or in our imagination. In the environment, it signals something which needs addressing, whether it is too much pressure, difficult people, criticism or something else. There may also be things at home or in our social life which are causing stress. We have strong powers of imagination as well. These, when misused to forecast negative outcomes or to produce negative explanations, will cause stress – our minds and bodies respond to stress in the same way whether the stimulus is real or imagined.

How does stress affect us?

Stress affects us emotionally and physically, and it affects the way we think.

Emotionally: One of the oldest parts of our brain, the subconscious (emotional) brain, is responsible for triggering the stress response, also known as the “fight or flight” response. Any stimulus reaches this part of the brain in a 1/1000th of a second, long before our conscious (thinking) brain can engage to analyse and set the experience in proper perspective, some 1/10th of a second later. The subconscious part of our brain was designed at an early part of our evolutionary development to protect us from real, physical dangers. The simple choice was to engage with the enemy (fight) or run away from it (flight).

Physically: In order to give us the strength and capacity to fight or flee, stress hormones are released, and when the level of these hormones increases, the heart rate quickens to pump more oxygen to the muscles. Muscles then tense in readiness for action, and the digestive system is temporarily disabled. At some time or other we have all experienced a racing heartbeat, tension and/or an upset stomach when stressed. As a result, we are well prepared for a physical response. This is not, however, appropriate for an office environment, where the stress is rarely a physical danger.

The way we think: A strong emotional response in turn limits access to our thinking brain. We can therefore lose concentration and the ability to think clearly.

What can be done?

Because it is the emotional part of the brain which has caused the stress response, this is the part that needs to be calmed down. This in turn will allow the physical reaction and thinking style to remain calm, so we can think more clearly about the situation and deal with it more calmly. There are various ways to calm ourselves. Here are two methods which are highly effective:

The first is physical exercise – even a brisk walk to get a glass of water, up and down the stairs or outside will help – because exercise produces natural “feel-good” chemicals as well as burning off the stress hormones. It doesn’t need to be a gut-busting session at the gym; any physical exercise you can build into your week – walking, running, sport – will help.

The second is one of the most powerful ways we can de-stress, which is to learn and use a simple breathing exercise known as “diaphragmatic breathing”, or the 7/11 technique. This exercise stimulates the relaxation response quickly. We can’t be stressed/anxious and relaxed at the same time. We need to be skilled at being able to relax ourselves as a matter of daily routine as well as for particularly stressful situations. Practising diaphragmatic breathing will equip you with a method of relaxing yourself easily and quickly in any situation. Make sure that when you are breathing in, you are doing deep 'diaphragmatic breathing' (your diaphragm moves down and pushes your stomach out as you take in a breath) rather than shallower higher lung breathing.  Hold each breath to a count of seven on the way in and 11 on the way out. If you find that it’s difficult to lengthen your breaths to that extent, then reduce the count to breathing in for three and out to five, or whatever suits you best – as long as the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. Continue in this way for five to 10 minutes, or longer if you have time, and enjoy the calming effect it will have on your mind and body. It takes a little practice, like anything worth doing, but once you feel the beneficial effects you will know that you are doing it right.