By Michele Hoos
Maybe you have a new job, but you feel more like your job is having you. Maybe it’s the new responsibilities of a promotion that have you feeling frantic. Or maybe you just have a big project on your plate and you’re really feeling the pressure.
No matter what the reason, you’re overwhelmed—and your work stress is starting to affect your personal life. You don’t eat lunch, you lay awake at night obsessing over your to-do list, you spend half the weekend worrying about Monday morning. Try as you might, relaxing is just not an option.
Here’s some good news: It’s perfectly normal to be anxious about your job—studies show that seven out of 10 adults experience stress or anxiety daily. But here’s some better news: There are some simple changes you can make to gain more control over your work life and be able to relax again in your free time.
1. Reconfigure Your Morning
Do you turn over and check your inbox to read emails in bed before you’ve pulled back your window shades to see the sky? If so, you’re going from zero to 60. No wonder you feel frantic!
Instead, consider easing yourself into the day. Get a retro alarm clock so you can keep your phone away from your beside table—and instead of checking it first thing, spend a few minutes meditating, do a quick morning yoga sequence, go for a jog, or just take a few minutes to make (and enjoy) a healthy smoothie. You will have a more relaxed approach to your day if, as excellence coach Phil Drolet talks about in this video, you “create an intentional ritual that gets your mind and body up and running and into an optimal state.”
2. Take Control of What You Can
Not feeling in control can often contribute to anxiety about work. And while getting in control of your entire work life is a longer-term project, there are smaller things that you can organize in no time to ease some of your anxiety.
For example, develop some quick techniques to tame your inbox instead of becoming a slave to the onslaught of new messages. (I swear by programs like Sanebox and Unroll.me.) Set up a good project management system or prioritize your to-dos first thing in the morning (or the night before!) so you know what needs to get done today and what can wait until tomorrow. Even just dedicating a few moments to clear the clutter around your desk (or on your computer desktop) can help to calm your mind.
3. Take Breaks
There will always be another email to read and another tab to open on your internet browser—but that doesn’t mean that sitting in front of your screen for a seven-hour stretch is healthy.
Instead, make sure you’re logging off consistently every couple hours, even if it’s just to walk around the block and take in some greenery. Research shows that people who live near green spaces have less depression and anxiety. So, if you have the opportunity to go outside for even a few minutes to “smell the roses,” do it.
4. Exercise—Even if You Really Don’t Want To
While you may be thinking a few more hours of work on that strategy document will ease your stress level, you’re probably better off doing some strategic sweating. Remember: Exercise doesn’t just burn calories—studies show that it burns off stress and anxiety, too.
What’s more, scientists at University of Colorado, Boulder have done research in mice to suggest that even if exercised is “forced,” it reduces anxiety. So, even if you’re not naturally inclined to work out, see if you can get yourself into a set regimen inspired by a class, a friend who is willing to speed walk or jog with you after work, or even a fitness app or gadget. Your body—and your stress levels—will thank you for it.
5. Assess Your Food and Drink
Are you subsisting on caffeine, sugar, and processed foods? That’s like pumping fuel into the runaway train of your anxious mind: Studies show that the buzz you’re feeling from your morning cappuccino can actually exacerbate or induce your anxiety.
So, try making a few healthy swaps. Drink water or herbal tea instead of caffeinated drinks. Instead of reaching for sugary processed foods when you’re stressed, try balancing foods like blueberries, almonds, and seaweed. The nutrients in whole foods you eat to maintain a balanced diet will not cure your anxiety, but they very well may help your mental well-being.
6. Find Your Breath
You probably didn’t realize you lost it, but if you’re anxious, you’ve most likely left your deep breathing behind in yoga class (or never really found it in the first place). “If we are breathing very shallowly, we are going to feel anxious,” says Dr. Katherine Falk, a integrative psychiatrist in New York City. “If we begin to breathe from the belly, that will calm our mind.”
Dr. Falk recommends mastering some simple breathing techniques so you can have a way to consciously calm your mind wherever you are. Once you begin to pay attention to your inhalations and exhalations, you can use this powerful tool of deep breathing at your desk, in a meeting, or on your commute—whenever you need to relax. At night, if you’re struggling with insomnia, breathing meditations can also help to lure you back to sleep.
Keep in mind that if you are suffering from intense anxiety that is disrupting your personal life considerably, you don’t need to try to overcome it all by yourself. Dr. Falk says if you’re noticing a pattern in your life where new projects or roles create anxiety, where you’re not enjoying anything, or where your eating or sleep is disrupted for more than a couple weeks, then it may be time to seek therapy. If you’re not sure whether or not your anxiety falls within a “normal range,” try taking an online test.
And, most importantly, remember to try to keep your job in perspective. Sometimes, when I feel my heart rate surge at work, I remind myself that I’m not performing brain surgery—that no one is going to die because I didn’t finish something. In those moments, considering a problem much larger than whatever is causing my current stress gives me the pause I need to take a deep breath and calm down.