Feeling stressed at work? Don’t forget to breathe

On World Mental Health Day, we asked a few professionals how to deal with stress at work

Your child’s daycare is closing. Your car needs a new carburetor. Your elderly father is suffering from a terminal illness. Your home improvement project has morphed into a money pit. The relentless news cycle makes you want to pull the covers over your head and stay there until Saturday.

Yet even as these types of ongoing stresses are occurring in your life, you must still go to work and try to perform at your best. While pulling that off isn’t easy, it is possible. Those who work in the mental health field say there are tools that help a person stay productive at work even when their personal life threatens to dominate their thoughts.

A main component, they say, is being honest with yourself and others about the stresses and your personal needs.

“Anxiety and stress levels are at an all-time high,” says Poppy Jamie, the 28-year-old founder of the meditation app Happy Not Perfect. “We all understand what it’s like to feel overwhelmed.”

Jamie, a member of the board of advisors for UCLA’s Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, says that if those stresses are personal ones, they can spill over into work performance if time isn’t taken to acknowledge and process them.

“When you suppress emotions, you activate the emotional center of your brain,” Jamie says. It’s the opposite of what many are hoping for at work, where maintaining a calm and rational demeanor is often helpful to make the best decisions.

Earlier this year, Jamie’s app debuted a five-minute exercise called Refresh that uses science-backed steps to help you approach your day in a more centered way. The app asks how you are feeling, with choices ranging from “sad,” “heartbroken,” and “anxious” to “excited” and even “magical.” The program then moves through a breathing exercise, noting when you should inhale and exhale.

On World Mental Health Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues and mobilizing efforts in support of better mental health, Jamie led a breathing exercise at London’s WeWork 138 Holborn. She discussed how people aren’t stuck with the way their mind works—it’s possible to be less stressed if you retrain yourself to handle it better.

But Jamie’s approach is about more than breathing. On her app you can vent by typing in what’s on your mind and then “burn” the whole screen in a symbolic manner to let go of negative thoughts. You are prompted to list things you are grateful for, doodle on the screen, or pass along a compliment to a friend.

In times of high stress, Jamie says, it’s paramount to identify what will help you relax. This “radical self care,” as she calls it, includes basics like proper sleep and hydration, but also requires that you consider things that specifically calm you down and then commit to doing whatever that might be. It can be as simple as drinking more hot tea or leaving a few minutes early to make a yoga class.

“When we are struggling, we forget what we need to feel better,” Jamie says.

If something beyond the simple stresses of daily life is weighing you down, Jamie says you should not hesitate to seek professional help or take some time off. If you have personal days, it’s wise to take advantage of them.

“Allowing yourself to recover is really important,” she says. “And being able to then, when you’re recovered, go back to work [at] full steam. You wouldn’t keep training on a sprained ankle—you’d take a couple of days off to make it rest.”

Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey, co-founders of Shine, send an inspirational text daily to their two million community members across the globe. They advise that when stress becomes something that impacts your work, it needs to be brought up to a supervisor.

“A good rule of thumb is if you feel your struggles are impacting your ability to get the job done, flagging that to your boss will hopefully get you the proactive support you need,” says the 35-year-old Hirabayashi, who works from Brooklyn’s WeWork Dumbo Heights. “What we always find helpful in that scenario: Come with a few ideas or solutions for how they can best support you, not just the problem, for the most productive conversation.”

Jack Jones, founder of Australia’s The Banksia Project, which works with men to develop practices to implement positive mental health strategies, says putting in the time to build a positive office environment will pay off when stress threatens to impact work performance.

“When outside stressors are significant, we have to put on a facade as to how we really feel when we get to work,” says Jones, who is based at Sydney’s WeWork 333 George Street. “We therefore spend the majority of our day pretending we are okay, when at times, we aren’t. It is extremely important to create relationships with people in your workplace that allow you to be honest, open, and vulnerable.”

That means sharing struggles with colleagues and doing the same for them.

“We need to feel comfortable to talk to our colleagues about life’s challenges and know that they will also be willing to show vulnerability towards us in return,” says Jones, 25. “In order to safely do this, people need to be willing to listen honestly and openly after they ask a question like ‘How are you?’ or ‘Are you okay?’”

Taking time during the day to enjoy the simple pleasures can also improve your mood and lower stress.

“We need to slow down and stop to enjoy the first sip of our coffee,” says Jones. “Enjoy the beauty of someone deciding to wear a bright scarf on a rainy, miserable day.”

Jamie agrees with Jones that being positive affects everyone around you.

“Looking after your mental well-being is a priority not only because it’s beneficial to yourself, it’s also hugely beneficial to the business environment,” she says.

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