In today’s busy, pressure-filled work environment, it’s important to have go-to stress relief exercises that quickly relieve (and prevent) the work stress and overwhelm you feel.
But who has time for it? It’s not like you can take 30 minutes for a lengthy meditation break or go for a long walk to blow off steam.
Yet doing nothing means succumbing to a burgeoning headache and painful tension in your neck and shoulders (which inevitably leads to snapping at colleagues and loved ones).
The good news is that you don’t have to keep gutting through it, pretending that high stress and overwhelm is just part of “getting ahead” (while worrying about the negative impact it’s having on your health and relationships).
Today, I’m covering 3 simple stress relief exercises that are quick and effective. Not only will they help quickly reduce your stress levels and get back on track, but they’ll even help you prevent future workplace stress from ever occurring.
And to help you go even deeper, get your copy of 5-Minute Stress Solutions for a step-by-step guide of proven stress relief and prevention strategies and a healthy, happier mindset.
Table of Contents
Why Stress Management Isn’t Just About Stress Relief
Before we get into the specific stress relief exercises below, it’s important to understand a few things about stress and stress management (especially when it comes to workplace stress). Because stress management isn’t just about handling stress when it happens.
If you want to keep your stress levels low, no matter the circumstances, then you need to understand what causes your stress so that you can prevent a large portion of it from ever happening.
The Secret Stress Creator (Hint: It Comes From Within)
Most people think of stress as being caused primarily by external events and circumstances out of their control. But it’s more complicated than that.
Think about what tends to trigger stress for you. Yes, something happens that you have little to no control over (and even if you did have control, you can’t go back and change the situation you’re in).
Often stress is triggered by events or circumstances that are unexpected, have a tight timeline and/or create pressure to perform. And so you’re expected to feel some level of stress.
The problem is that your brain makes it much worse.
Why (and How) Your Brain Works Against You
Your brain is predisposed to think negatively and assume the worst. Although this can sometimes be helpful (it’s a survival instinct), it can wreak havoc on your thoughts and emotions. And it’s more likely to cause your brain to go into fight-or-flight mode.
Fight-or-flight is the automatic stress response triggered within your body when subjected to higher levels of stress. Although this is helpful when subjected to real danger, it’s unhelpful in virtually all other situations (especially when at work).
That’s because fight-or-flight hijacks how you process thoughts and emotions. Your amygdala takes over and shuts down your brain’s frontal lobes (which is in charge of rational thought).
You’re incapable of thinking clearly or rationally when in this state. And so you end up. . .
- Snapping (for no real reason) at coworkers;
- Losing it with your kids; and
- Thinking about worst-case (often unrealistic) scenarios.
Worse is what happens to your body if subjected to long periods of stress (called chronic stress).
Chronic stress causes physical and psychological problems such as high blood pressure, depression, insomnia, and poor cardiovascular health. It’s dangerous for your health and eventually leads to burnout.
That’s why it’s so important to take control and not just relieve stress as it happens, but to learn how to better manage and prevent stress.
What Stress Management Is All About
For years, scientists believed that the brain was like a machine: great, but unable to change. That’s been proven wrong. Your brain is plastic, able to change based on new experiences (called neural plasticity).
It turns out that new thoughts create new neural pathways and repetition strengthens these pathways. What this means is that, through persistent practice, you can rewire your brain to:
- Process thoughts and emotions around stressful situations in a more helpful manner;
- Decrease negative thoughts (and increase positive thoughts); and
- Create desired habits.
The best stress relief exercises should include in-the-moment stress relief, along with strategies to help you change how you think and process your thoughts. You’ll be more stress-resilient and will prevent added stress from ever occurring.
[Recommended Reading: How to Avoid Stress (5 Unusual Stress Management Strategies)
How Lifestyle Creates and Exacerbates Stress
Before moving on, I want to make clear that your lifestyle and the choices you make (every day) also play a big role when it comes to your stress levels. Things such as:
- Not prioritizing time to relax;
- Not delegating when you can;
- Trying to control the uncontrollable;
- Lack of exercise;
- Not hydrating or eating well;
- Saying yes when you want to (and should) say no; and
- Lack of quality sleep.
All of these things are within your control and relate to choices that you’re making for yourself. And they directly affect your stress levels. If you’re serious about lowering your overall stress levels (both workplace stress and otherwise), then it’s important to start making better choices.
[Recommended Reading: Redefine Your Work Life Balance Definition].
3 Easy-to-Implement Stress Relief Exercises (Even at Work)
I know that one of your biggest worries is time. Will you have time to implement the stress relief exercises below?
The short answer is yes. All of these exercises can be done in just a couple of minutes yet are incredibly effective. And they’re all simple enough to become a natural part of your lifestyle.
The key is to use them consistently because they work best if used regularly (so that they become a go-to habit).
Stress Relief Exercise #1: Breathe, Scan and Move On
This exercise utilizes several mindful exercises that are known stress relievers: deep breathing, body scanning, and journaling. Let’s go through the specifics and benefits of each strategy before getting into the specific exercise.
Did you know that slow, deep breathing through your nose actually reduces stress levels? If you answered yes, ask yourself how often you use this information to your benefit.
Deep breathing can be done on it’s own. To make it work, go somewhere quiet. If you can’t, then put earphones on (with white noise that’s relaxing – not music).
Breathe slowly and deeply through your nose while counting each breath. If you lose count and discover that your mind has wandered, bring your focus back to your breathing and start counting from 1 again.
Expect that your mind will wander (it’s normal). The act of noticing and bringing your attention back to a simple focal point is part of what helps relieve stress. You’re forcing your mind to focus on one single thing (that’s not stressful).
Note that breathing in this way is a form of simple meditation. The truth is that you don’t have to take a long time, sit a certain way, or chant to meditate (or reap its rewards).
And you don’t have to spend 30 (or even 10) minutes to benefit from meditative breathing. I recommend starting with just 3 minutes.
Body scanning is especially helpful when your muscles get tight and knotted from stress. It’s also good with slowing down a frantic, chaotic mind.
Use of regular body scans will additionally help you to better identify where stress tends to manifest within your body.
Here are the basics of a body scan:
- Mentally scan your body and pay attention to how you feel and what you sense. Especially note where your muscles are tense and other ways in which your body is manifesting your stress.
- Breath slowly through your nose and start tensing the muscles in your feet. Once you’ve tensed them as much as you can, count to 10 and then slowly relax.
- Move up to your calves and do the same thing. Keep moving up your body progressively until done.
Although it’s great to do this one lying down, you don’t need to lay down to conduct a body scan. Just be sure that you’re comfortable and still (sitting in a chair at work is fine).
The point of (and benefit to) journaling is to:
- bring awareness to your thoughts and what’s triggering stress; and
- help you release negative thoughts and emotions by writing them down so that you can let go and move on.
I find this practice especially helpful when my mind feels cluttered, as if there are a million thoughts rolling around within it like a broken record.
There’s something about writing your thoughts and feelings down that’s therapeutic. Moreover, it will help you to uncover the hidden beliefs behind your emotions so that you can challenge and process through them.
[For more about how to challenge thoughts (especially the ones hiding behind doubts and fears), read 5 Effective Tools to Stop Living in Fear and Worry].
I recommend keeping a notebook specifically for journaling your thoughts. It’s helpful to be able to go back and review your journal from time to time.
How to Breath, Scan and Move On:
Although each of the strategies above can be utilized on their own, it’s especially powerful to combine them into one exercise. Here’s what to do:
- Sit comfortably in your chair and be sure that you won’t be interrupted (close your office door, put earphones on and turn your phone to silent).
- Start by closing your eyes and breathing slowly, deeply through your nose. Count your breaths to a count of 10. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back and start back where you remember leaving off.
- Once you get to 10, perform a complete body scan. Then, breath for another 10 breaths.
- Open your eyes and spend a couple of minutes (or as long as you want/need) journaling. Ask yourself what:
- Triggered your stress (and be specific).
- Feelings and emotions are present as a result.
- Thoughts and beliefs are behind those feelings (i.e., what’s causing those feelings).
- Can be done about it.
Stress Relief Exercise #2: Re-Frame
What you believe about stress affects how your body reacts to it.
In 1998, researchers asked 30,000 US adults about their stress over a year-long period and whether they believed stress was harming their health. Respondents’ death records were reviewed years later to measure the health effects of their stress. Here’s what they found:
- Those who reported high levels of stress and viewed it negatively had a 43% increased risk of dying prematurely.
- Those who reported high levels of stress but didn’t believe their stress was harmful had the lowest risk of dying – even lower than those who reported low stress levels.
This means that you can change the effect stress has on your mental and physical health simply by changing how you feel about your stress. I don’t know about you, but I find that powerful (even inspiring!).
But how do you do that? The answer: cognitive reframing.
What Is Re-Framing and How Does It Work?
Reframing is a technique designed to change how you perceive your stress so that you can stop focusing on the negatives and instead see the positives.
Let me be clear: it’s NOT about creating false positives or ignoring the negatives. It’s about identifying the real benefits coming out of the experience. Because the truth is: there’s something to be learned from every situation.
When I battled breast cancer, I didn’t know whether treatment would work. I knew I could die.
But I used re-framing a LOT to help me through this time. And it truly helped me to enjoy myself and my life regardless of my cancer.
Instead of worrying over what I couldn’t control, I chose to focus on the people who brought my family food, took my kids to school and constantly checked in on how we were. It make me see the beauty and love that was round me (and helped keep me positive during a difficult time).
How to Re-frame (Anything)
Reframing is simply the act of refocusing on the benefits of your experience. These benefits might be:
- The end-result that you’re working toward (even the fact that it will soon be over).
- What you’re learning from the experience (this could be new skills or big life lessons).
- New challenges that are testing you yet making you mentally stronger and resilient.
- Strengths that you naturally have that you’re using to get through it all.
To help you reframe, ask questions. What strengths are you developing, new skills are you learning, and/or mental shifts are you cultivating as a result of this experience? Will your experience bring new opportunities that are beneficial to you?
Although re-framing won’t eliminate your stress or make all of the negatives go away, it will change how you perceive it. And that will reduce the effect the negatives have on you and your health.
Want help with this strategy? Grab your copy of 5-Minute Stress Solutions for proven mindset and stress management strategies (including this one) that will increase your stress resilience, create a calm mind and give you more control of your emotions.
Stress Relief Exercise #3: Reset Your Physical + Mental State
This stress relief exercise uses the benefit of exercise/movement, along with self-affirmations and meditative breathing. Before getting into the specific stress relief exercise, let’s go through why movement and self-affirmations are included in it.
The Benefits of Exercise + Movement
Exercise increases self-confidence and makes you feel good about yourself. But there’s even more to it than that.
Exercise is a form of movement meditation. When exercising, you’re forced to focus on one specific activity. This compels your brain to calm down and stop running through all the what if’s and why me’s (that it naturally goes to when stressed).
When using exercise and movement as a stress reliever, note that you don’t have to go for a long run or do a big workout for this to work. You can walk up the stairs a few times, walk around the office (inside or out), or even do a couple of jumping jacks.
When I practiced law, I would sometimes go to the restroom to do 20 squats when I needed a reset.
How Self-Affirmations Work (If Done Correctly)
Self-affirmations have a bad rap (and for good reason). That’s because most people don’t use them correctly.
Here’s the thing: positive affirmations are NOT about saying positive things about yourself over and over again that you want to believe yet don’t. That’s not going to work because your brain will know that it’s not true.
Also, positive affirmations are NOT the same thing as manifesting (the idea that thinking about something long and hard enough will make it happen). Truth be told, I’m not a believer in manifesting.
When done correctly, self-affirmations retrain your brain to think more positively about yourself, increase self-confidence and change your thoughts. And the latter (changing your thoughts) is why they’re a powerful stress management technique.
How to Self-Affirm
When creating a self-affirmation, there are a few rules to follow in order for it to work:
- Be specific and credible. If you don’t believe the affirmation, then it won’t work. This means that you shouldn’t be overly positive.
- Tell a story. Start with where you are now and how you’re working to be better. Finish with where you expect to end up as a result of the work you’re doing for yourself. Your end-result doesn’t have to be overly positive so long as it’s at least a step or two in the right direction that motivates you (and is realistic).
For example, if you’re terrified of speaking saying “I’m a confident and powerful speaker” won’t work. Your brain will reject that thought.
But the following affirmation is believable (after joining Toastmasters and attending meetings regularly):
“I’m working to become a more confident speaker. I’ve joined Toastmasters and am starting to speak up more at work. This is hard, but I’m still doing it and that’s helping to build some self-confidence. I’ll continue to work on this and get better so that one day I can be a better, more confident speaker.”
As you progress and feel better, you’ll want to change your self-affirmation to fit where you are and where you feel you can go.
How to Reset Your Physical & Mental State
Step 1: Get up and MOVE.
Stretch if you want and then go for a walk or go up/down the stairs. You can walk around the office – inside or outside. And if you’re feeling really motivated, do a few jumping jacks and/or squats.
As you move, focus on each movement and how it feels in your body. Pay attention to your breathing. And count reps or footsteps. How long you go is up to you, but I recommend at least 3 minutes (and going longer if possible).
Once done, go back to your office/desk and move on to. . .
Step 2: Perform a simple breath meditation for 1-3 minutes (at least count to 10).
Step 3: Create a self-affirmation around your abilities to handle the situation and move past it (using the principles discussed above).
Be sure to consider (1) how you’ve handled similar and/or difficult situations like this in the past, (2) what you can do moving forward, and (3) how it’s helping you to grow (e.g., re-framing).
This stress relief exercise is especially good when you feel so overwhelmed and anxious that you start to withdraw and ignore the problem.
And Now To You. . .
Now you have 3 super simple stress relief exercises that will help you to quickly reduce stress levels AND keep them low for the long-haul.
And I’d love to hear your thoughts. Which exercise do you plan to try first?
Let me know by leaving a comment below right now.
P.S. Don’t forget to go even deeper by downloading your copy of 5-Minute Stress Solutions. This free guide has 8 easy-to-implement strategies for gaining control of your thoughts, increasing resilience and drastically reducing stress levels.
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