Finding Peace with Work
Stress, these days, seems to be inseparable from work. There’s a rapidly growing litany of desk-work-related maladies with catchy rhyming phrases such as “online spine,” or “tech neck,” not to mention “screen apnea,” where we suspend breathing or breathe shallowly as we email, text, or Zoom. And that’s just for people who work at computers! Regardless of what we do to “earn a living,” it can take a toll.
Are you feeling the stress? For those of us who need to show up at work everyday to support ourselves and others, how can we find a balance that minimizes the cost to our physical and mental health? Three things can help….
- Strong Back, Soft Front
Bring attention to how your body feels throughout the day. Roshi Joan Halifax has an expression that I find both anchoring and balancing: “strong back, soft front.” This means to check in and feel your innate strength and dignity, perhaps standing or sitting up a little taller. And at the same time, notice where you can soften, perhaps bringing more relaxation to your body as you let your senses open to what’s around you.
And this might sound like a no-brainer, but if your work requires you to be in the same position for hours, remember to get up and move around. An “exercise snack,” can be a pleasant interlude—it certainly sounds appetizing. Going for a walk, whether indoors or out, will lift your mood, increase cardio health, and lower blood sugar. Even a few minutes counts.
- Don’t Forget to Breathe
Linda Stone, who researched and coined the expression “screen apnea,” writes that when we are deprived of oxygen (for example, when we unconsciously hold our breath while working), it impacts our health and mental clarity. As a result, we are less efficient and more exhausted. Researchers at The National Institutes of Health have found that holding one’s breath can contribute to stress-related diseases and trigger a “fight/flight/freeze” response, putting our nervous system in a chronic state of threat.
If you notice that you have stopped breathing in the middle of a stressful email or other work event, stop for a second and take a deep breath, fully inhaling and exhaling. You might like to say this common meditative phrase to yourself to get some mindfulness in the mix while you’re at it: “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”.
Researchers are finding that a longer exhalation can decrease stress. Try the 4-4-8 breath and see how it works for you: breathe in for the count of 4, hold your breath for 4 counts, and then exhale for 8 counts. Use this practice when you are experiencing stress of any kind.
Linda Stone has investigated work-related stress since 2007 after many years in the corporate world. As a meditator, I was intrigued by her recent discovery that practicing loving-kindness in the workplace can be an even more powerful antidote than breath techniques. It turns out that love, gratitude, and appreciation can get you out of the stress response almost immediately.
So, if you’re feeling stressed about a deadline or an important meeting, give this a try: think of a co-worker you care about, and send some loving-kindness to that person. The classic phrases work well: “May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful.” I also recommend phrases specifically for the workplace, “May you have ease with work. May you meet your deadline. May your meeting go well. May you find peace at work.”
While the work environment for many may be fraught, mindfulness can help lighten the pressure on our bodies and psyches. Try the practices above for yourself and see what happens!
Dr. Susan Pollak is the author of Self-Compassion for Parents and the co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School.