Some jobs are more stressful than others, but almost all of us, at some point, have had to cope with the familiar symptoms: a churning stomach, shallow breathing, and sweaty palms. After work, we drive home only to find can’t seem to focus on the dinner-table conversation. At night we toss and turn, only to wake up more exhausted than when we went to bed.
There’s no denying that keeping up with mounting workloads and professional pressures can be hard. But there are ways you can train your brain to minimize the stress, tackle a bad situation and move on.
It isn’t about recounting your childhood during countless hours of therapy. Nor is it about telling yourself that “it’s all in your head.”
There are simple habits and techniques that can help your brain rewire itself so you can function at your best – think of it as physiotherapy for the mind.
STEP 1: Learn to breathe
It may sound like a Lululemon slogan, but research shows busting stress and boosting your performance at work starts with getting enough sleep, minding your diet, and learning to breathe differently.
“Stay hydrated, don’t walk into a meeting hungry,” said Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist.
Being sleep-deprived, dehydrated or hungry can all spoil your mood and hurt your performance. Low blood sugar levels don’t just make you “hangry,” they can also increase anxiety and can lead to dizziness.
But perhaps the most powerful stress-buster is breathing.
Abdominal breathing during a stressful situation helps you slow down and “feel grounded,” said Dr. Donna Ferguson, clinical psychologist at the Work, Stress and Health Service of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
Something called “four-seven-eight breathing” helps re-balance the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your brain, which leads you to feel calmer and enables you to think more clearly, said Dr. Oren Amitay, a registered psychologist and lecturer at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“When you can’t change a stressful situation, you need to get in the right head space.”
So breathe. Inhale through your nose to the count of four – use your abdominal muscles rather than expanding your chest; hold your breath and count to seven; and then exhale from your tummy through your mouth while counting to eight. Repeat four times and you should see immediate results.
Deep, abdominal breathing is, essentially, what you would do in a yoga class. But being able to do it right, especially during a stressful situation, takes practice.
“I’ve seen even yoga masters do it wrong,” said Amitay.
Rehearsing your breathing once or twice a day every day helps reduce anxiety levels and ensures you’re going to be able to do it right when you really need it, he added.
And if you wake up at night with thoughts swirling through your head, four-seven-eight breathing is an effective way to put yourself back to sleep quickly.
WATCH: How to maintain a healthy relationship with a high stress job
STEP 2: Change your thought patterns
Once you’ve slowed down your heart rate and your thoughts through breathing, analyze the situation, said Amitay.
“You need to differentiate between the practical and the psychological.”
For example, say that, for whatever reason, you just busted an important deadline. The first thought that might cross your mind is, “I’m going to get fired.”
But are you really?
Following this line of negative thinking into its deep, dark hole might lead you to quit your job, when, really, there was no need to.
Instead, try to take a step back and realistically assess what the consequences might be. Your gut reaction may be turning an actual problem into an even bigger problem.
Instead of wasting energy by panicking about worst case scenarios, accept what happened and focus on what you can do to mitigate the consequences, said Amitay.
“It’s all about perspective.”
Cognitive behavioural therapy can train your brain to think differently
At work, changing the way you think can help you with a lot more than stress and anxiety.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a practical, short-term form of psychotherapy, can help you address a number of ways in which you might be unwittingly sabotaging your professional performance.
And much like going to the gym, training your brain through CBT is something you might be able to do on your own, with self-help books and online resources, said Kang. (See the bottom of this article for a couple of such resources.)
There are three steps to changing your thought processes, said Amitay.
The first is analyzing your reaction in a certain situation and acknowledging whether it was counterproductive.
For example, imagine that you didn’t receive the credit you deserved for a project you were involved in, and that your reaction was to become unmotivated. That, in turn, may have jeopardized your chance to get a promotion. Being able to tell yourself that that’s what happened is the first step.
The second step is to understand what caused you to react the way you did, said Amitay.
This is about identifying a set of deeply held beliefs that tend influence your more superficial thoughts and emotions. Cognitive behavioural therapists refer to these as “rules and assumptions.” You might think of the as the organizing principles of your thinking.
In our hypothetical example, you might have a deeply held assumption that “life is not fair.” You then tend to thinks and act according to the rule that “no matter how hard I try, I will never get ahead.”
If that’s the principle that organizes your thoughts, no wonder you became unmotivated and stopped trying, said Amitay.
Even though you might have been vaguely aware that giving up on your job would compromise your promotion, doing so was a rational course of action given your assumptions.
Step three is identifying how your mind is mangling reality, something called “cognitive distortions.”
These can be things like a tendency to turn every bad situation into a catastrophe (“My presentation didn’t go well, now I’m going to get fired”), zeroing in on the negatives without paying attention to the positives (“A few of my slides were out of order, therefore my whole presentation was a disaster”), and jumping to conclusions (“My boss didn’t immediately respond to my e-mail asking for feedback about the presentation, therefore she must have hated it”).
Everyone displays a few cognitive distortions, said Kang, but we can strive to think differently. Eventually, this will lead our brains to dig new neuropathways, until the new way of thinking becomes natural and automatic.
WATCH: How to manage stress over money
Physiotherapy for the brain
Teaching your brain to, say, walk without leaning on the outer edges of your feet will take a lot of time, effort and repetition, particularly if that’s they way you’ve been strolling since childhood. The same holds when you are trying to get your brain to think differently, said Kang.
Recording your thoughts in a diary is one way to help your brain switch tracks, she added. It makes it easier to keep track of what’s going through your mind and consciously steer away from unhelpful patterns.
For example, if you made a mistake at work, you should avoid telling yourself that you’re stupid. Your silent, self-directed tirade won’t help you improve the situation, said Ferguson, but it will take practice to catch yourself and stop – and to eventually avoid it all together.
Another exercise that many office workers can use is avoiding “should have” thinking, said Kang.
You didn’t speak up at the board meeting? You’d normally walk away thinking “I should have spoken up.” But you should change that to “next time, I will speak my mind.”
That way, “instead of berating yourself, you’re moving forward and focusing on problem-solving,” said Kang.
STEP 3: Focus on problem-solving
The point of it all, of course, is to change the way you act.
For example, once you’ve acknowledged that you were exaggerating by telling yourself that you boss was giving you negative feedback 100 per cent of the time, you can tackle the situation, said Ferguson.
Perhaps you need to talk to him or her or change your approach. Or maybe you need to work on certain aspects of your performance. Sometimes, more rarely, you might come to the realization that the job you have just isn’t a good fit for you.
Whatever the solution is, managing your emotions and thought patterns can help you find it and embrace it.
Retraining your brain isn’t about “thinking that it’s all good,” Ferguson noted. It’s about “figuring out how to get from here to there.”
Indeed, in a work setting, changing your thought processes doesn’t just help you react to bad situations. It can also help you to move forward.
Becoming a more self-aware can help you recognize your strengths and set the right goals, said Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at CAMH.
And the ability to think clearly and pragmatically means you’re going to be better able to break down those goals into achievable tasks, she added.
For example, if you want a promotion but you’re not sure how to get one, CBT can help you formulate a plan, said Ferguson.
You might want to chat with colleagues who climbed the ladder ahead of you; or figure out whether an online course might give you the skills you need, and you might be able to fit that in your schedule.
Still, whatever it is that trips you up at the office, remember that getting your mind to cope with it differently will take time, effort and persistence, said Amitay.
“It’s simple, but it’s not easy.”
Amitay recommended Mind over Mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think, by Dennis Greenberger, Christine A. Padesky.
Kang recommended the MindShift app.