12/03/2012 06:13 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

4 Fast Ways to De-Stress at Your Desk

Work. Just the word can cause your stress level to rise. Even if you love what you do, some days you can feel tired, frustrated, even trapped. Your body knows when the situation you're in is not good for you. What most of us don't realize is that our brains have the capacity both to create stress and turn it down.

Even better, most of us don't realize we can use our brains to control our stress response wherever we are right now. Here are four ways to de-stress without even leaving your desk.

1. Remember stress is valuable information. Stress is a reaction in your brain to what you're experiencing in this moment. For instance, a deadline just got moved up a week, and now you have to stay late and miss your daughter's recital. The part of your brain that creates stress, your amygdala, also known as your "alarm," fills your body with chemicals like adrenaline, which cause us to feel stressed.

But here's the good news. When your alarm senses that you're thinking clearly, it slows or stops the flow of stress chemicals.[1] The first key for all of us to de-stress is to remember that stress is a brain reaction to your environment designed to keep you safe. You're supposed to feel stress when something around you isn't right. Stress can become a helpful signal if you look at it as a wake-up call. Stress is not comfortable, but it tells us that something important needs our attention.

2. Answer a simple question: What's most important to you right now? Research with those who have experienced trauma like war and natural disaster has revealed that answering the question "What's most important to you right now?" turns down your stress response.

To think clearly, we have to use another center of our brain called our frontal lobes. This thinking center is the secret to turning down your alarm. Your mental alarm will get louder and louder, sending more and more stress chemicals until it knows you are taking whatever it has identified as a problem seriously. It could be an upcoming presentation or a meeting with your boss.

In the case of your daughter's recital, the key is to answer what's most important to you. Thinking about and creating a plan for how to get the work done and go to your daughter's concert could turn down the alarm. You won't like staying up late after the kids go to bed to finish your work; but your stress will decrease knowing you, not your work, run your life.

3. Pay attention to rhythm. Your ideal day has a pattern where you have time to solve problems and time to reflect on what's most important. Pull up your calendar and look at the way you spend your hours at work. Most of us constantly respond to the needs of people around us. The problem for our alarms is that if we're always responding to other people, they will constantly pull us into their problems. They will continually turn on our alarms.

That's not wrong; it just needs to happen in a pattern that you have determined is optimal for you. You have more control than you realize. You don't have to quit your job to be stress-free. You do need to make clear to yourself and your boss what you need in terms of a schedule to enjoy doing the most important work.

4. Identify your triggers. People, places, situations -- myriad things can trigger our alarm based on memories or immediate worries and anxieties. When you think about what triggers you, you can realize why you feel stress; and realizing why -- not fixing something -- turns down and even resets the alarm.

Why would missing the deadline to go to your daughter's recital be a bad thing? If your trigger is always wanting to please people, now the next time a "pleaser moment" shows up, your brain will remember you don't have to make everyone happy. Maybe your boss is the trigger because he or she is demanding like your father or mother. Recognizing when a behavior sets off your alarm allows you to not react next time they make you feel like a child, and think clearly about how to interact with them professionally.

When you started reading this article, maybe you expected to read about breathing exercises and taking a break every hour. These can be helpful ways to step back and make room for thinking clearly. You should continue doing the stress reduction techniques that work for you.

Everything I'm asking you to do activates your thinking center. You don't fix stress; you use it to focus your brain on the life you want. That's the key to turning down the alarm.


[1] Erk, S., Abler, B., & Walter, H. (2006). "Cognitive modulation of emotion anticipation." European Journal Of Neuroscience, 24(4), 1227-1236. doi:10.1111/j.1460-9568.2006.04976.x

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