From deadlines to difficult coworkers, it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the office. Even if you’re doing something you love, work can leave you tense and drained by the end of the day. Fed up with the 24/7 stress? According to a new study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, certain mindfulness-based techniques may help reduce stress at work by up to 40 percent.
That’s right, you can learn to relax without leaving for greener pastures or shelling out for a week-long vacation. “People can find ways to relax without changing their environment,” says study author Maryanna Klatt, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Clinical Family Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. In this small study, 16 members of a surgical intensive care unit (SICU) completed an eight-week mindfulness-based intervention. Researchers recorded psychological and biological markers of stress one week before and one week after the intervention and compared the results to a control group of employees not participating in the program.
“People can find ways to relax without changing their environment.”
The relaxation Rx: Every week, participants attended an hour-long group class during work hours that incorporated modified yoga, relaxation music and seated meditation, says Dr. Klatt. Each session had a weekly theme, ranging from improving sleep to teaching people about mindful eating. To make the activities workplace-friendly, Dr. Klatt says all of the moves could be performed in normal clothes. Participants were also given the relaxation music after each class and told to practice what they had learned daily for 20 minutes, if possible.
Down Dog on the Job
Not willing to sacrifice precious work time for mindful reflection? The study results show there are serious benefits to channeling your inner hippy. By the end of the study period, participants’ saliva samples showed significantly fewer biological markers of stress. Most notably: Salivary alpha amylase, an enzyme that increases when you’re stressed, was reduced by 40 percent. While the self-reported stress level of work for participants did not change, the researchers suspect this was due to the high-pressure nature of working in the ICU and the structure of the questionnaires.
“I was pleasantly surprised [by the biological results],” says Dr. Klatt, noting she also observed a transformation in how participants reacted to stress. “Rather than become irritable with a patient’s family members, who were scared themselves, a participant was able to diffuse the situation quickly and calmly,” she says. Learning to control knee-jerk reactions is even more important (and more feasible) than simply trying to eliminate stress. Dr. Klatt notes that numerous studies have demonstrated that mindfulness activities change how the amygdala (the area in the brain responsible for emotional processing) reacts to tense situations.
Find Your Zen
Even if you don’t work in an intensive care unit, a little mindfulness could go a long way towards reclaiming your sanity. Dr. Klatt has already staged mindful interventions for 180 other Ohio State faculty and staff members, and has plans to replicate the current study within other occupations. “It doesn’t take that much to feel better,” she says, though, “you’ve got to practice it…There has to be some sense of commitment to get the results.”
Need to relax, stat? Here’s how to steal some of the strategies used in this study.
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing. Breathe in slowly through your nose, and pause briefly after filling your diaphragm with air. Make your exhale twice as long as your inhale, says Dr. Klatt.
- Get moving. Klatt suggests getting up and moving around if you are desk-bound during the day. “Some people’s stress is from too much sitting,” she says. During the current study, participants performed a modified, standing sun salutation by using their desk chairs as props.
- Be mindful of stressors. Notice what activities or people have a tendency to make you feel overwhelmed or anxious. “Awareness is the first step in mindfulness,” says Dr. Klatt. Once you determine what’s causing you grief, you can find strategies for dealing with those tasks or colleagues to reduce your anxiety.