Quick fixes for job stress

By Louisa Mattson Correspondent / January 9, 2010

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Wouldn’t it be great to have at your fingertips some quick ways to stay energized, calm and upbeat throughout the work day…and to get yourself back on track during those times when you are feeling really stressed out? 

Here are just a few on-the-spot stress reducers you may want to adopt for yourself.  While at first they may seem too simple, the science behind these techniques supports their validity. 


Your breathing is intimately tied to the activity of your autonomic nervous system.  When your sympathetic nervous system is activated — initiating the "fight/flight" response — your breathing speeds up; and when your parasympathetic nervous system is activated — initiating the "relaxation response" — your breathing slows down.  A fast-paced lifestyle can lead to a chronic physiological state where your sympathetic nervous system remains in overdrive and leads to unnecessary wear and tear on the body.  This is reflected in the shallow, rapid breathing that becomes a habit for many executives who are going 24/7. 

What you can do:  When you notice yourself getting tense and or just breathing shallowly, focus on extending the length of your out-breath.  This will naturally slow and deepen your breathing.  Try shifting your breathing rate so that you are inhaling for about five seconds and exhaling for five seconds and do this for a minute.  If this were the only stress management tip listed here that you adopted, you would be giving yourself a great health benefit.  Not only does this reduce physiological wear-and-tear, you may also notice its calming effect on your state of mind. 


Facial feedback research suggests that "fake it ‘til you make it" may work when it comes to smiling.  Apparently just as you tend to smile when you’re feeling pleased and happy, you also are likely to experience a positive change in mood when you position your facial muscles to form a smile.

What you can do:  Smile for a few minutes and see what shifts for you.  You may experience a subtle but noticeable change in your feeling state — a general lightening of your mood. 


Research on mood regulation shows that exercise is a better mood regulator than just about anything else — including snacking, shopping, vegging out in front of the TV, etc.  A brisk 10-minute walk is the quickest way to shift your mood from negative to positive. 

What you can do: When you don’t have time for a walk, a lively march in place can help rev you up.  When you are in an afternoon slump at work or just feeling tired, a quick pick-me-up is to march in place vigorously for a couple of minutes.  Try this technique: With your arms bent at the elbow, swing them as if you are marching, so your arms cross in front of you — your left hand coming out in front of your right side, and vice versa.  By crossing the midline of your body in this way, you are helping to coordinate the left and right sides of your body…and brain (helping you think a little more clearly, too).


Recalling a positive event and letting yourself fully relive it has been shown to enhance physiological functioning as well as a sense of well-being.  One piece of research demonstrated that just five minutes of accessing a positive heartfelt emotion improved immune function for at least six hours, while accessing a negative emotion like anger depressed immune function. 

What you can do: Take a five-minute break and recall a happy moment in your life — one in which you felt a positive emotion, such as love, appreciation, or gratitude.  Don’t just think about it; really let yourself re-experience it in a full-sensory way. 


The thymus gland — just under the upper part of your breastbone — is involved in the healthy functioning of the immune system. The Thymus Thump, a technique from the field of behavioral kinesiology, helps you keep this gland "tuned up" by tapping on it.  The thymus is said to be involved in the flow of "life energy," so this technique is also known as a great overall energizer.  (Maybe this was the secret to Tarzan’s vitality!)

What you can do:  Using your fist or fingertips, tap your breastbone firmly but gently a couple of inches below your collarbone.  Do this for 20 seconds in a 1-2-3 waltz rhythm.  Thinking of something positive and saying "Ha-ha-ha" with a smile can add to the benefit of this exercise.  It may sound silly, but use it anytime you need a quick pick-me-up!

Louisa Mattson, Ph.D., is a business psychologist using mind/body techniques in her work as a partner at the career management firm Essex Partners in Boston.