It is normal for professional work to get overwhelming here and there, but if you feel constantly on the edge of overflowing, creating a mindfulness routine and integrating it with your work schedule could make a big difference. This will help you to stop before the true burnout hits, at which point you could lose all productivity and drive for projects.
Yoga teaches that the best way to manage stress is to take regular, shorter breaks to exercise mindfulness and meditate throughout the day rather than jamming it into a longer session once per day. Small rests throughout the day can keep your mind better balanced so that stress does not get the best of you and knock out productivity.
While many larger tech companies have rolled out “recharge rooms” and yoga dens to build an innovative office culture, most businesses do not have the extra space or resources for dedicated wellness areas. (And let’s face it—in the COVID-19 era, many of our ‘office spaces’ may simply be the living room couch or small home office distracted by kids, needy pets, or family members.) Where can you escape for a recharge, to re-approach your work with focus?
Luckily for those of us without much space, you can find relaxation even while at your desk. The beauty of meditation is that you do not need any equipment, and can try it from almost anywhere.
‘Meditation’ is not all hippy-dippy fiction—there is real science supporting its health effects. Harvard researcher Dr. Herbert Benson’s groundbreaking studies in the 1960s and 1970s showed that meditation practices can release relaxing chemicals to your brain (like dopamine), limit stress-inducing chemicals (like cortisol), and send signals to increase blood flow to the brain and slow organ activity.
Importantly, you should resist the urge to feel guilty for taking a break during the workday for meditation. You are not ignoring your job by practicing mindfulness; in fact, a five-to-fifteen-minute relaxation session will likely send you back to work feeling recharged, refreshed, and more creative. Although your work environment may not be peaceful if those feelings cloud your workspace too much it will no longer be a place of productivity but of stress.
After setting up an ergonomic and healthy work environment, you can take the extra step to find balance during the work day with body, mind, and soul refreshers. These exercises can be done while sitting at your desk or in the space next to a standard or standing desk.
If you’re surrounded by coworkers and cannot close your eyes for risk of someone thinking you are asleep, try “incognito meditation” by staring at a complex document not associated with your work, zoom out a bit to de-focus the words (such as using two-page layout view), and pick a random point on the document to focus on. Academic articles in an unrelated field downloaded from the internet work well!
Remember, everybody is different, and stress will manifest in different ways for different people (or even in different ways for the same person). If one technique does not work for you after one or two tries, no need to force it. Keep trying different breathing, meditation, and stretching techniques until you find a method that works well for you.
Slow your heart rate and mind with mindful breathing
‘Pranayama’ is the yoga practice of using the breath to soothe the actively thinking mind, with techniques to be more mindful of something so fundamental we are almost always unaware of it: breathing.
Breathing finger taps
This is a simple focused breathing meditation that you can do at your desk, with eyes closed or focusing on an uninteresting spot. The purpose of the finger taps and counting is to focus your mind on something other than your current stressors. It’s just the right amount of minimal thinking to pull your mind’s attention to the present.
- Sit comfortably, placing hands on your lap
- Take 3 slow deep breaths to settle down
- Press both pinkies into your lap as you inhale and count up to 5, then hold your breath for a moment
- Exhale as you count down from 5, then release your pinkies
- Repeat across each pair of matching fingers all the way to your thumbs
- Work your way backward from the thumbs back to the pinkies
Extend the exhale
Stuck in a boring or stressful meeting? Relax without calling attention to yourself by trying this technique.
- Start to take longer breaths, fully inhaling and fully exhaling
- Then, count to 4 as you inhale, and count to 6 as you exhale, making your exhale slightly longer than your inhale
- After 5-10 minutes, this will calm the body by promoting the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing the heart rate and allowing the body to rest
Try triangle breathing
Triangle breathing will calm your mind and balance your body, especially as you are in the middle of a stressful moment. It is also subtle if you have other people around and don’t want to call attention.
- To start, inhale and exhale once fully
- On the next breath, count the length of your inhale (for example, 4 counts)
- Then, as you continue to breathe, use that same count duration to inhale, hold, and exhale (for example, if your count is 4, you will inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and exhale for 4 counts)
- “Draw this triangle” with your breath for few rounds
- If you feel comfortable, slowly increase the size of your triangle with one count at a time; if you feel yourself getting out of breath, return to the previous count
- Concentrate on this triangle breathing for 3-5 minutes, then decrease your count until you return to normal breathing
Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing can boost your thinking, release stress, and harmonize the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
- Sit comfortably, and close your eyes
- Place your right hand close to your face, so that you can block the right nostril with your right thumb and the left nostril with your ring finger (your index finger and middle finger can rest on your forehead)
- First, close off the right nostril, and slowly inhale through the left nostril
- Pause, close the left nostril, and breathe out through the right nostril
- Inhale again through the right nostril, pause, close the right nostril with your thumb, and breathe slowly out through the left nostril
- Continue for 2- 5 minutes then return to normal breathing
The relaxation wave
This technique was one of the early exercises used in Dr. Herbert Benson’s research proving the “relaxation response” exists connecting meditation to physical changes in the body.
Sit quietly in a comfortable position, and close your eyes
Slowly feel a “wave” flow through your body, progressively relaxing the muscles as the wave passes each part of your body
Start with the toes, soles of your feet, and ankles to deeply relax so that there is no muscles used to keep them up
Work your way slowly up your calves, knees, thighs, and hips
Take the extra time to relax your stomach muscles since this is a common place to store stress; deeply relax the muscles around your stomach and sides, feeling your breath slowly fill up and release, or even placing a hand on your belly to focus on breathing for a bit
Keep working your way up your fingertips, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and face
With your eyes closed, let your head droop forward or backward, ensuring to even relax the tongue, eyelids, and forehead as the “wave” of relaxation takes over
In this fully relaxed state, you can count your breaths or try a breathing technique above to continue releasing tension
This technique is most effective before meals since within two hours after meals the digestive processes can interfere with stomach and breathing relaxation
Take a gratitude break
Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, shifting your focus to gratitude will increase the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter dopamine in your brain while lowering cortisol, the stress hormone. Frequent exercises of gratitude will train your brain to choose optimistic thoughts more regularly, since these thoughts will have quicker neural pathways in the brain.
- Close your eyes and find a comfortable position
- Make a mental or actual list of 10 things you’re grateful for, trying to avoid obligatory, vague, or inauthentic things (like simply listing ‘family’)
- List specific memories, moments, people, or things in your life that bring you real joy
Stop your tasks for a moment and use your imagination to visualize a place that fills you with joy.
- Close your eyes and breathe deeply at regular intervals
- What would you describe as your safe place? Perhaps a favorite beach or rope swing from your childhood? If you don’t have one, an imagined happy place can also be deeply calming.
- Relax and take a few deep breaths, then start to visualize your calm place
- Focus on the calming place and explore the area in your mind, keeping your imagination open to possibility. What are the sensory experiences you have here? What do you smell? Hear? What sort of textures do you feel?
- If you get distracted, acknowledge any thoughts and emotions, thank the thought for coming to you, and then continue the meditation
- Stay in the calming place for as long as you like, and keep breathing deeply at a regular pace
Change the feeling of stress
The next time you feel stressed or uncomfortable because you are too busy, stop and try to identify where in your body this stress is located.
- Close your eyes, and fully bring your awareness to the feeling of stress. Do you feel stress in your head, throat, chest, or belly? Does it have a movement, a distinct shape, a color? Does it feel hot or cold? Does it have a smell?
- Then, try to change these variables one by one. Try to change the shape into something nicer. Try to change the color, movement, or even location of the feeling.
- Once you identify the feeling as a separate entity within you, you have control over it and can play with it freely.
Auditory meditation with nature
Mentally escape from reality for a few minutes by listening to the natural world.
- Put on your headphones
- Search for a nature sound on YouTube (or other platforms) that tends to bring you calm, such as ocean waves, birdsong, wind rustling through forest trees, etc.
- Listen to the natural sounds while closing your eyes or focusing on an uninteresting spot
- Begin a breathing meditation (such as one of those above) for 5-10 minutes
Stretch breaks for the restless mind
If your mind is buzzing, it may simply be a result of sitting for too long, which impedes blood flow and reduces brain function. While stretching is not necessarily a form of meditation, simply moving your body brings you back into the present moment and helps you focus on your body.
Check out these 10 stretches easily done alongside or even in partnership with your work desk. If you haven’t had one already, a standing desk with motorized function to raise and lower the desk top makes these stretches and other standing movement throughout the day incredibly easy. All of these exercises are done with ergonomic desks and chairs in mind, especially with the SmartDesk 4, Autonomous.ai’s latest smart desk, or the SmartDesk 2 for Home Office.
Workstation exercises often have the same health benefits as regular routines and can range from simple stretches to more complicated activities. Remember to keep breathing deeply during these exercises, or even combine with a mindful breathing technique from above.
If you find a technique that works well for you, no need to only use it in a work context! Take it for a spin next time you have a frustrating conversation, receive stressful news, or just wake up on the wrong side of the bed. If none of these techniques seem to work for you, it may be time to literally step away from your work space to clear your mind from work with a walk outside, a phone call to a supportive friend, or a living room dance break.
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