Six Quick Ways To Combat Workplace Stress

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Katherine, a statuesque, dark-haired manager, shared her struggle with workplace stress in a counseling session with me this week. Her usual calm demeanor crumbled under a steady stream of layoffs, nervous employees, lowered salaries and increased workloads. Her daily office environment changed from mostly friendly banter to grumbling gossip and suspicious stares. The stress on her body created other challenges. Sleepless nights, and a nervous stomach triggered weight-loss leaving her feeling weak and foggy-headed.  She felt that she could not keep up with the personal and professional demands she faced.

One Minute Body Scan

As we talked I noticed her right hand was clenched in a tight fist. I asked her about that hand. “I didn’t even notice, ” she said. I asked her to do a quick mental scan of her body, starting with her head, then slowly moving down to her toes.  “As you draw your attention to that part of your body just notice any muscle tension, without judging or commenting to yourself about that tension.” Katherine noticed tension in her hands, neck and shoulders, as well as an uncomfortable sensation in her gut. After the body scan, I asked her what she noticed. “I feel more relaxed,” she replied.


Body awareness helps us draw attention to unnecessary tension. If you take a 1 minute body scan break, you can catch yourself overusing muscles that could leave you feeling tired and stiff by the end of the day. Awareness allows you to release that tension, preserving energy for the work in front of you and reducing the stress you feel.

Soothe Breathing

I asked Katherine about some of the more difficult tasks she faced in the coming week. “I have to lay-off a friend who is an excellent employee.” As she talked about that dreaded conversation we talked about the changes in her breathing. Her voice constricted, breathing became shallow and her heart rate picked up speed.  “Lets breathe together, spelling in your mind the word soothe. S  O  O  T  H  E. Inhale slowly through your nose, S O O T H E. Hold your breathe,  S O O T H E. Then slowly release through your mouth, S O O T H E.”  Repeat this pattern six times and notice a mild relaxing effect. You can perform this technique with eyes opened or closed.  This simple centering technique signals the brain that everything is alright.


Ancient Chinese Philosopher, Lao Tzu, wrote, “Nature does not hurry yet everything is accomplished.” Psychological stress feels like a speeding up of action, thought, heart rate and respiration rate. To let go of stress, it helps to take a moment with nature. Observing a single fragrant rose on your desk, hummingbirds landing on a tree outside, or a squirrel run along a bench, can help you to slow your pace and calm down. Next time you feel excessive stress at work, take a brief break to walk outside. Draw your attention to the temperature, the breeze, plants and trees. Let yourself empty your mind of work related thoughts and just notice the natural environment outside. Notice the lowering of tension in your body.

Smell Something Pleasant

Smell is the only sense that goes directly to our emotion centers of the brain. It bypasses the thalamus and goes right down deep into the brain triggering instant emotional reactions. The smell of oatmeal cookies in the oven instantly transports me to my grandmother’s house and the feeling of comfort and warmth she provided. Scented soaps, perfumes, candles or herbs can create a wonderful break from the monotony of the office. One client keeps a potted herb plant on her desk. She will grow fresh mint, or rosemary or basil. When she wants to feel better she’ll take a sprig of the plant and rub it between her fingers to release the fragrance. It reminds her of her time in Italy where she studied cooking. She instantly feels transported. If your employer allows fresh flowers, bring a small bouquet in  every Monday. Take a smell of the fragrant flowers and notice the mild pleasure.

Identify the Problem

Workplace pressure often stems from a sense of urgency and a cascade of tasks that feel too demanding to complete in the time available. We hop from emails to phone calls to meetings to spreadsheets feeling pulled in too many directions to complete much of anything. We lose focus on what is truly important. David Allen, author of  Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity suggests a process for getting started when we feel bogged down. First write down the problem or project that is  most pressing, interesting or bothering you the most. Next, in one simple sentence write down your intended successful outcome of this problem or situation. Now write down the very next physical action required to move that situation forward. For example, today I was bothered by an inability to log in to my blog. My intended outcome was to produce a helpful blog post that I could then publish on our website. The first action I determined necessary was to call my web-hosting company to learn what caused the log in problem and how to repair it. If you’re reading this the process worked. This three step process can get you through your day with increased productivity and less stress.

Do One Thing

If you followed the three step technique in the previous paragraph you probably already identified one physical action you can do toward solving your problem. If you can gently bring your mind to the one task in front of you, stress falls away. If you identify the first step and focus only on taking that physical step, a sense of calm purposefulness appears as a happy side effect. Try this in the morning on your way to work. Notice yourself dressing, eating, grooming. Pay attention only to the drive to work. Keep your mind on the walking to the front door of your office building. Notice the door handles, people, elevator. Stay on the task immediately in front of you. When we attend to one thing at a time, life becomes manageable.

The number 1

So the next task before me: find interesting photographs to illustrate this post. Let me know what you think as you try these six quick ways to combat workplace stress.

Photos courtesy of: HaPe-Gera, hart_curt, WarmSleepy.