How mindfulness helps manage stress at work

Stress is often unavoidable, especially at work. Emails pile up, and deadlines are always on the horizon. ASU’s Nika Gueci shares how to use mindfulness to lessen the negative symptoms of stress at work. Use World Mental Health Day this month as an opportunity to implement these tips and improve your mental well-being.

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A woman takes a break from stress at work to close her eyes and practice mindfulness.

If you’re a working professional, you’ve probably experienced stress on the job at some point.

Many factors can cause stress at work, which is one reason why work is often cited as a top cause of stress for a majority of Americans, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual stress survey.

These factors include tight deadlines, excessive workload, unclear expectations and more.

It may be impossible to avoid stress at work, but there are ways to manage it and lessen its negative effects.

Symptoms of stress

Stress at work can decrease your focus and productivity as well as lead to burnout and job turnover.

And work stress usually doesn’t stay at the office. This stress can cause you to experience stomach pain, insomnia, irritability or other symptoms, even when you’re at home.

“Stress affects you on a whole-person level,” said Nika Gueci, executive director for university engagement at the Arizona State University Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience. “There is no one system in the body that is not affected by stress.”

These stress symptoms can be harmful, but they’re usually manageable and go away once the stressful situation has passed.

It’s when stress is present for a long period that it becomes harmful. Chronic stress can lead to serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, depression or anxiety.

Positive versus negative stress

Despite these negative symptoms, not all stress is bad for you.

“Distress, or stress that is detrimental to health, is what people think of when they hear the word ‘stress,’” Gueci said.

Distress is caused by negative events, such as relationship conflicts or job insecurity. This is the kind of stress associated with anxious feelings and negative stress symptoms.

The second kind of stress, called eustress, is a short-term positive type of stress.

“Eustress is a moderate-level stress that helps motivate you,” Gueci said. “A certain level of stress is beneficial for building ambition and enthusiasm.”

This is the type of stress you may feel during big and exciting life events, such as starting a new job or learning a new skill. This stress is also what helps keep you focused and productive when tackling challenging but realistic projects at work.

If you can identify the stress you are feeling as eustress, then there’s no need to worry. Instead, focus on channeling this energy into the task at hand.

Managing stress at work

If you realize what you’re feeling is distress, then it’s time to start using some stress management techniques. Here are a few health-related tips to help you build the mental and physical resilience to be your best self during stressful situations.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to be present in each moment. In a mindful state, you’re fully aware of what you’re doing and how you’re feeling.

“Anybody can engage in mindfulness by intentionally bringing attention to the present moment,” said Gueci, a mindfulness instructor for ASU Continuing and Professional Education. “But many times, we ruminate on the past or worry about the future, and life passes us by.”

Mindfulness is one of the most effective ways to manage stress because of its ability to interrupt the automatic and harmful mental habits brought on by stress.

“Mindfulness skills help us check into our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and environment in deeper and more intentional ways,” Gueci said. “Given the more objective and complete picture, we can activate a more reasonable response to stress at work and in the rest of life.”

Mindfulness can also help you build resilience, become more compassionate and better understand your feelings. All of these skills can help you better manage stress and determine if the stress you’re feeling is positive or negative.

“When we learn to become more objective and curious about our experiences, it often reduces anxiety, depression, isolation and un-belonging,” Gueci said. “Knowing that your current state of mind and the circumstances in your life are subject to change can be hugely empowering in dealing with adversity.”

Be compassionate

During stressful times it’s easy to get caught in negative thought cycles. You may become irritable with your coworkers or start to feel like you’ll never be good enough. These feelings can compound your stress and make it hard to get work done.

Mindfulness or other compassion techniques can help you break out of these negative thoughts.

“Coping with stress is different in every situation,” Gueci said. “However, building skills of self-compassion and compassion toward others can go a long way in moderating the damaging effects of stress.”

This compassion can help you feel more confident and better collaborate with your coworkers.

“Once we start managing ourselves with more kindness, it is often the case that we relate to others with more understanding and compassion,” Gueci said.

Develop healthy habits

Stress can often trigger unhealthy habits. You may crave unhealthy foods or be tempted to skip sleep or a workout to spend extra time on work.

But during stressful events, healthy habits are especially beneficial. Mental and physical health are very closely connected, so it’s essential to focus on both.

Eating healthy and getting plenty of sleep can boost your immune system, creative thinking and ability to focus. Likewise, exercise can help decrease stress and improve your mood.

The next time you feel stressed, use mindfulness techniques to take a step back from the stress and identify if you’re slipping into bad habits.

“Noticing your habits can lead to more informed decision-making,” Gueci said. “And that is whole-person well-being: making the daily decisions that allow you to be your best self.”

Learn how to manage stress with a mindfulness course
from Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University

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