Monday, April 19, 2004

Stressed at work? Try to relax a little

Little changes in your workplace environment might make a big difference in reducing tension

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Your inbox is so full the system is about to crash. Your boss is crankier than a 2-year-old who's missed his nap. The phones won't stop ringing. The fax machine is on life support. And every project you're responsible for from now until retirement is due before lunch.

(Photo illustration by Craig Ruttle)
Happy Monday. Mental stress causes Americans' hearts to skip a few beats, beat too fast or even stop, say researchers at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md. Their study, released in March, shows mental stress puts more of a strain on the heart than physical stress.

And workplace stress is epidemic, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health: 40 to 60 percent of American workers say the source of their paycheck is also the source of their greatest stress.

Layoffs, downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing - whatever you call it, fewer people are doing more work, and that takes a toll on employees, says Dr. Walter Smitson, a psychiatrist and director of the Central Clinic, a psychiatric center at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

"At many workplaces, technology has increased the stress," he says. "It requires faster responses. In the days when most communication was by letter or fax, you had a little while to think about things and the sender didn't expect a response for a few days. Today, senders of e-mail expect responses in the same day, and that's increasing the stress."

Here are five "desktop" strategies from local experts and others for coping on those days when the cube farm is too big, too loud and too rushed and your head feels at least a size too small.

• Beautiful music: If your job allows, music is a great way to lift the spirits while slowing the pulse rate, according to Most computers have CD drives. Add a set of headphones, and you're in business. Or bring in a portable cassette or CD player and headphones. Instrumental music is probably the least distracting, but use whatever works for you. Just keep the volume low enough that you don't damage your eardrums or annoy your neighbors.

• Pretty pictures: Experts recomment that you choose a beautiful beach or nature scene as the backdrop for your computer and transport yourself someplace tranquil for a few seconds. Or take a few minutes and imagine yourself walking on a beach, sitting in a cool glade or sailing on blue waters. Think of it as a mini-escape without a passport or plane ticket.

• Deep breaths: People report feeling choked or breathless when they're angry or under stress - mostly because they forget to breathe. Diane Utaski, certified yoga instructor and owner of the Cincinnati Yoga School and Bookstore in Blue Ash recommends this technique: Mindfully watch the breath by counting the breaths at equal lengths. Inhale to four counts. Exhale to four counts. Repeat as necessary to calm a stressful situation.

• Move it: If you can leave your desk or office, go for a quick walk around the block, or even around the office itself. Stretches can ease tension in the neck, shoulders and back. Movement itself releases endorphins, calming neurochemicals that help neutralize stress. Regular exercise helps stamp out stress, Smitson says. If your employer has an onsite fitness center, take advantage of it.

• Smell pretty: Aromatherapy - using scent to treat mood or physical complaints - is a quick fix in the cubicle. Lavender, lemon, geranium, peppermint and rosemary help revitalize the mind. Chamomile, orange and sandalwood oil, along with lavender, help ease stress, says Susan Stewart, co-founder of It's My Nature in Florence, Ore. Boy candles and lotions and store them in a desk drawer. If you can, you can also use a diffuser at your desk with a drop or two of essential oil.

A little stress is good

We know stress can wreak havoc, but a little stress is good. It keeps you sharp and flexes the creative and competitive muscles.

"It does push us to try to do our best. It pushes us to want to excel in life and do things that make us feel pride in our accomplishments," says Dr. Walter Smitson, a psychiatrist and director of the Central Clinic, a psychiatric center at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

"School teachers talk about how to create optimal stress in students. You stress them just enough that they want to learn but you haven't stressed them so much that you block their ability to learn. Each of us needs to calculate that optimal stress level in ourselves."

Stretch against stress

Diane Utaski, certified yoga teacher and owner of the Cincinnati Yoga School and Bookstore in Blue Ash recommends these moves to ease stress:

Standing swinging twist: Stand and turn your hips from right to left. Allow your arms to swing side side and flap like empty coat sleeves. Lift the heels and soften the spine.

Lion's breath: Open your eyes and mouth really wide, stick out your tongue, look up, lean forward and growl like a lion. Repeat three times. (Ttry this at home or someplace private so you don't alarm your co-workers.)

Big hug: Cross your right arm over your left. Move your elbows up and down a few times, then move your arms to the right and your head to the left in a gentle twist. Pat yourself on the back, then release with a big sigh and smile.


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