As Labor Day approaches, American workers—overwhelmed by work, lack of sleep, societal and economic issues, loss, recession worries and the uncertainty of what lies ahead—are reporting work stress at epidemic proportions. Here are nine rules you can follow to stay calm, cool and collected when you get stuck in work stress.
- The W-A-I-T rule. The acronym WAIT is a quick and easy shortcut, to short-circuit stressful reactions: Watch what’s going on within when you’re triggered. Once you’re aware of it, acknowledge the reaction by talking to it with something like, “I see you’re stressed out.” Allow, instead of resist, your initial inner reaction just as it is. Invite the stressful part of you to calm down and soothe it by talking it off the ledge. Tell it in a compassionate mental whisper, “I’m here, too, and I’ve got this.” When you find yourself brimming with impatience, frustration or anger, use the acronym WAIT to chill. You might notice your heart rate drop, breathing slow and muscles relax.
- The 365-breathing rule. Breathing exercises help you counter the accumulation of minor physical tension associated with stress. Many therapists use a 365 technique to counter accumulated stress: at least three times a day, breathe six times per minute (inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for five seconds each time) for five minutes. Repeat all 365 days of the year during the day, during breaks or at moments of transition between two activities. Some studies even suggest that, in addition to providing immediate relief, regular breathing exercises can make people less vulnerable to stress, by permanently modifying brain circuits.
- The 3-to-1 ratio rule. Scientists have discovered that negativity has a longer shelf life than positivity, and it takes three positive thoughts to offset one negative thought. When negativity is left to its devices, you’re more likely to store a stressful, negative memory than a positive one after just one episode—all in the name of survival. According to research, for every heart-wrenching negative stressful experience you endure, you need to experience at least three heartfelt positive experiences that uplift you. Known as broaden-and-build, this rule isn’t trading stressful thoughts for positive ones but changing the scope of your mind to widen the possibility of calmer responses.
- The 10-10-10 rule. This rule helps you avoid emotional snap reactions and consider the long-range consequences of stressful reactions instead of just the short term. Consider that stress is only temporary, then before flying off the handle follow three steps: How will you feel about your reaction in 10 minutes? How will you feel about it in 10 months and then ten years from now? Stressful reactions often rule in the 10 minute short term because your emotional brain floods your rational brain, throwing it off line. When you consider 10 months and 10 years, you start to have more access to your “thinking brain,” which gives you a clearer picture that your stress is temporary and will run its course.
- The 120-minute rule. Getting outside in nature for green time after prolonged periods of screen time is restorative. Mounting research shows that 120 minutes a week in nature—parks, woodlands or beaches—clears a fatigued brain and promotes physical and mental well-being. The two hours can be spent in one block or spread out over the entire week to get the de-stressing shock absorbing benefit.
- The 20-20-20 rule. The 20-20-20 rule says that for every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, you take a 20 second break, move around and look at something 20 feet away, which relaxes the eye muscles for 20 seconds and gives your brain a much-needed reset. Here’s how the rule works: Set an alarm or time popup for every 20 minutes when you’re working in front of a screen as a reminder to get up from your workstation, deep breathe and stretch. It takes 20 seconds for your eyes to fully relax. Studies show that daily Microbreaks between meetings—stretching, glancing out a window, eating a snack, walking around the block—keeps stress from building and the brain a chance to recharge.
- The 90-second rule. Next time stress triggers you, look at the second hand on a watch. As soon as you look at it, you’re now observing yourself having this physiological response instead of engaging with it. It will take less than 90 seconds, and you will feel better. Of course, you can always go back to thinking stressful thoughts that re-stimulate the loop. There’s probably a thought somewhere in your brain of somebody who did you wrong at work 20 years ago. Every time you think of that situation it still starts that circuit. The 90 second rule has been used to educate the public about the anger circuitry. When things are getting hot and you’re getting hotheaded, look at your watch. It takes 90 seconds to dissipate that stressful reaction.
- The H-A-L-T rule. When signs of fatigue take hold, stop and ask yourself if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. This alert signal can bring you back into balance. If one or a combination of the four states is present, slow down, take a few breaths and chill. If you’re hungry, take the time to eat. If you’re angry, address it in a healthy manner. If you’re lonely, reach out to someone you trust. And if you’re tired, rest.
- The “if-then” rule. The baked-in strategy of the if-then plan inoculates you from the self-defeat of blowing your top or throwing in the towel at work. Research conducted at New York University found that having an action plan for what you intend to do before you encounter a situation triples the chances of accomplishing your goals. One study found that 91% of people who used the if-then plan stuck to their exercise plan compared to 39% of those who didn’t use the formula: If X Happens (the event), then I’ll Do Y (my action). You’ve got to admit those are pretty good odds. Let’s say you’re trying to avoid the of your boss breathing down your neck close to a deadline. Your plan to be calmer goes from a vague, “I will stop reacting to my boss looking over my shoulder” to applying the, “If X happens, then I’ll do Y.” The X is the situation and Y is the action you take when X occurs. Plugging your idle vow into a specific action plan might look like this: “Every time I have an important project due, I will finish it two days before the deadline to give me a cushion to finish before my boss starts pressuring me.”