If this isn’t a stressful year, we don’t know what is! We all seem to be seeking stress relief techniques. But not all approaches work the same. At Happy Brain Science, despite knowing better, we’ve fallen into some stress relief “fails” that aren’t wise choices for most people, most of the time. We’d like to help you avoid our mistakes, and find better ways to cope.
Taking a Break at the Computer
Most of us do it: we get stressed, want a break…so we stay sitting at our computer, open up a web browser, and check out the news or a social media site.
The problem, for starters, is that we stay in the same position, staring at the same screen (or a handy mobile device), neglecting to move our bodies or connect with other people. Furthermore, the news we get online often adds to our stress. Whether it’s coming from Washington or our friends’ lives, online updates can compound whatever stress we’re already feeling.
Recently, Scott noticed he was “doomscrolling“ during his breaks. He decided to work on changing that habit. Now, he tries to move his body and personally connect with other people (like his wife and kids). He’s also begun incorporating more frequent 1-minute meditations into his day—both on his own, and as an invitation for the team during virtual meetings. Research shows that these strategies are more effective ways to take a break and relieve stress.
Another common issue: we get stressed out by one thing we’re doing, then start doing something else at the same time. The problem is that science is clear: we can’t actually pay conscious attention to two things at once. All we can do is rapidly switch our attention back and forth. And that causes us more stress.
I’ve been battling this challenge on and off lately. I’m a mom, a wife, plus a freelancer—and with my kids attending school from home, I can get pulled in many directions at once. Sometimes when I’m working, my kids call me and ask for help, so I try to multitask. Then I end up becoming distracted, frustrated…and ultimately unproductive due to the mistakes I make.
Science suggests that multitasking exhausts us. It causes us to make more errors and takes us out of the enjoyable, efficient zone called “flow.” If you doubt it, try this short exercise:
- Say the alphabet as quickly as you can, then immediately count from 1 to 26
- Now do it again, alternating between each letter and number (A, 1, B, 2, C, 3…)
Carving out time to focus deeply on something challenging-but-possible is a science-backed way to mitigate stress. In order to achieve flow, I’ve started blocking off time in the morning so I can help my children with their schoolwork. Then I schedule my own work around that timeframe as much as possible. Although it’s not a perfect system, I find I can accomplish more—and experience more satisfaction—by scheduling my tasks in chunks rather than switching from one to another.
Distraction can be a healthy coping mechanism. From watching TV to playing games, various distractions can be soothing. They can get our mind off what’s bothering us and help us calm down. But like many stress relief techniques, what works well in moderation can become problematic when overused.
When we turn to those types of activities for too long at a stretch, or too frequently, we risk losing touch with what’s happening for us internally and being able to address it. As my colleague Kim puts it, “If it’s 1 a.m. and I’m reaching for my third or fourth snack, and I’m not actually hungry, it’s a signal that just maaaybe I’m avoiding something.”
Mindfulness and self-compassion are powerful antidotes to the experience of “numbing out.” If you’re like many of us, though, the idea of tuning in to the present moment can sometimes feel a bit daunting—especially in moments of stress and anxiety. For Kim and others, “RAIN of Compassion“ is a practical tool for accessing mindfulness & self-compassion in times of inner turmoil. Introduced by Michele McDonald, it has since been modified by Tara Brach, a Buddhist scholar with a PhD in Clinical Psychology, to include the following steps:
“Recognize what is going on;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with interest and care;
Nurture with self-compassion.”
This way of breaking down the process connects to the science of stress reduction. For instance, pausing to acknowledge what we’re experiencing lets us harness the power of naming emotions (also called “affect labeling“). Similarly, when we intentionally allow our experience to be “as it is,” we leverage the stress-reducing impact of accepting our current internal state. The RAIN acronym encourages us to offer ourselves attentive kindness. When we do that, instead of trying to avoid our stressful emotions (and winding up stuck in unhelpful ruts), we can start to move through them.
On the Path to Stress Relief Success
Many of us experience long work days, urgent deadlines, and frequent organizational changes that contribute to our daily work stress. And the pandemic has added many stressors on top of that! Knowing which stress-relieving methods to turn to (and which ones to avoid) can make our work lives happier and more productive.
For more tips on how to be happier and less stressed at work, check out our other articles. Plus we’d love to hear from you! What stress relief “fails” have you experienced, and how have you learned from them? What strategies for stress relief are working for you these days? Thanks for commenting below, connecting with us through any of our social media channels, or contacting us here.