In 2010, eight years into running her tutoring company, Ann Peaslee was reaching a breaking point. She was taking care of her ailing mother while trying to meet the demands of her business, Lehigh Valley, Pa.-based P.R.E.P. LLC. The web designer she'd hired wasn't following through on plans and Peaslee's ads weren't generating as much business as she'd anticipated. Then, one night during a thunderstorm, her house got struck by lightning, knocking out her business phone line.
To cope with the stress and keep focused, Peaslee began what she calls a "walk and talk" at least once a week. She walked the neighborhood streets with a friend for an hour and talked through whatever had been bothering her. "You are getting rid of your anxiety by just getting it out," she says. "It puts you back in the right perspective."
Incorporating a stress relief routine in your workday requires time and effort. But here are seven quick and easy techniques that may work for you:
1. Count your breath. Taking deep breaths and lengthening your exhale relative to your inhale will calm your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for triggering your fight or flight response, says Timothy McCall, author of Yoga As Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing (Bantam, 2007). Counting the length of your inhale and exhale and gradually lengthening how long you take to exhale will help counter this stress response. If you take four seconds to inhale, for example, work to lengthen your exhale so that it lasts eight seconds. While every person's breath count will be different, taking 10 breaths like this can help calm your mind and body.
2. Sing it out. If sitting quietly and counting your breaths sounds impossible or unappealing, you can sing or hum to achieve a similar effect. When you sing or hum, you are naturally lengthening your exhale, which will slow your breathing and help calm you, McCall says. Be sure to breathe in and out of your nose as you do this. If the idea of singing or humming in the office seems silly, do it in your car on the way to work.
3. Drink more water. When your hydration level drops by even 2 percent, your ability to do simple math and make decisions is disrupted, says Mike Collins, founder of the Perfect Workday, a Raleigh, N.C., company that focuses on workplace effectiveness. "The more hydrated you stay, the better you think." Try keeping a pint-sized container of water by your desk that you refill three or four times a day.
4. Do a body scan. Redirecting your focus away from your worries and toward your physical body for a minute or two can help alleviate stress, says Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk and co-founder of Headspace, a U.K.-based company that teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques to business professionals. Close your eyes and take half a minute to do a mental scan of your body starting at the top of the head. Notice the sensation of your feet on the floor, your body in your chair and your hands on the desk. Repeat this scan two or three times. Rather than being stuck in your loop of worries, you're turning your attention to the sensations of your body. "By shifting the focus to physical senses, you are stepping out of the thinking mind and bringing the mind into the body, which immediately has a calming effect," Puddicombe says.
5. Keep vacation photos handy. Another way to escape from stressful thoughts is to keep vacation photos or postcards nearby. When you feel stressed, look at an image for a moment, close your eyes and try to imagine all the sensations you were feeling in that place--what you saw, smelled, felt, heard and tasted. This technique will calm you by focusing your attention on the physical sensations of your body as you visualize a particularly relaxing place. "Try to activate each of the five senses," says Margaret Wehrenberg, author of The 10 Best Ever Anxiety Management Techniques (WW Norton 2009). "It's literally the antithesis of stress for a minute."
6. Create a ritual. Instead of rushing to grab a cup of coffee or scarfing a snack, make a ritual of it, says Puddicombe. Take the time to notice the sounds, feel and smells of what you're preparing--whether it's a cup of tea or fresh fruit. Such a daily ritual can be soothing, helping you focus on something other than your thoughts, Puddicombe says. Whatever you choose to do, make sure it's something you have positive associations with.
7. Laugh out loud. Humor is the opposite of stress, according to John Morreall, president of Williamsburg, Va.-based Humorworks, which focuses on using humor in team-building exercises and other workplace activities. "In a stressful situation, you are emotionally engaged with some problem," he says. "When you laugh at a situation, you are distanced from the problem." To find relief in humor, Collins watches a YouTube video of a flash mob in Moscow dancing to "Puttin' on the Ritz." That never fails to make him laugh.
Related: How to Make Good Habits Stick