5 habits for improved mental health at work
Mental fatigue is one of the significant challenges to our mental health in the modern world. The pace of business is accelerating; customers are more demanding; technology allows us to be connected 24/7. Busy is our new status symbol.
Even when we are not actively working, we are filling our lives with activity Constantly on the go Always switched on.
In his book Rest, Alex Pang explains that highly creative, successful people alternate between stretches of hard work and “deliberate rest,” choosing leisure activities that boost their creativity, support healthy habits and nurture their wellbeing.
And Forbes founder wrote over a century ago, “success is most often won during non-business hours, the hours that spent away from the bench or the office; the hours during which we are our masters; the hours we are at liberty to use or misuse.”
So, what’s going on here? Why do we perpetuate the cycle of work, work, work, and deny ourselves the opportunity to rest, recuperate, and recharge? Are there simple things we can do to give ourselves a much needed mental break?
The answer is most definitely yes! And here we outline four essential habits, backed by research, that can allow your overworked brain to renew itself throughout the workday.
1. The 90 Second Pause
There are multiple stressors in the modern workplace. How we manage our emotions, thought processes, and actions in these moments has a massive effect on our mental health.
Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University biologist, specializes in the psychology of stress and this is what he says
“What stress is like for 99% of the beasts on this planet is 3 minutes of screaming terror on the savannah, after which either it’s over with, or you’re over with. We turn on the same stress response for a thirty-year mortgage.”
When danger sensed, be it a traffic jam, disgruntled customer, a mistake, or a negative thought (our brains don’t distinguish between real or imagined fears) the brain releases stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol), effectively triggering the fight or flight response.
However, the chemicals released into your system dissipate within 90 seconds. After that point, there is no chemical driver behind your anger, frustration or fear. It then becomes psychological. The chemical composition of the emotion only stays in your system after 90 seconds if you give it mental fuel.
Pausing for 90 seconds allows the brain to reset itself in the event of a stress response. It will enable the stress chemicals to leave your body, without reacting to them, giving you enough time to work on finding a solution or an appropriate reaction to whatever has caused the stress response in the first place.
Here’s how to do it:
Recognize the signs early
You will feel the emotion physically before you are consciously aware of it. Tight chest, shallow breathing, hot flush, sweating, tight shoulders, clenched jaw. Actively give the emotion a name. The act of naming the emotion helps the brain to manage it.
Focus on your breath
Your body’s response to a stressor is shallow, fast breathing, so you want to slow it down, and breathe deeper to enhance brain activity. Try breathing in for 4, and out for 4, 4 times. Controlled breathing stimulates the vagus nerve releasing a neurotransmitter (a brain signal) that increases focus and calmness.
Distract your mind
Do anything else which distracts your mind and focus on it 100%. This technique allows your account to do something other than react to the chemicals in your body. It activates the prefrontal cortex giving you back control.
2. Move. Move. Move
Movement is medicine. Exercise improves mental and physical health and helps you live longer. There have been multiple studies showing the positive effects of use on mood mostly because exercise releases endorphins and serotonin, which make us feel good.
Yet, even if you exercise regularly most of us “under-dose” on movement, sitting for hours at a time staring at our screens or in long meetings.
On average, we sit for 4.7 hours a day, according to an international study. Prolonged sitting reduces blood flow to the legs and increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity. Reducing that time by 50%, the study calculated would result in a 2.3% decline in all-cause mortality.
The study also found that frequent, short walking breaks were more effective at improving wellbeing, reducing hunger and fatigue than a single, longer walk before work, or not taking any movement breaks.
Moving more frequently is vital. Getting into the habit of taking movement breaks throughout the day could be critical to maintaining good mental and physical health. So try to incorporate a walk around or stretching activity for five minutes throughout the day.
Besides, Stanford researchers who studied the link between walking and creativity discovered that a walking break led to more creative ideas than a sitting break. The creativity afterglow lingered even after the subjects returned to their desks.
3. Get into Green
Cognitive psychologist David Strayer who has studied the link between nature and wellbeing asserts that “being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to dial down and rest, like an overused muscle.” [Check our his fantastic Ted Talk here]
In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within a half-mile of green space.
And Japanese researchers at Chiba University found that people who walked around a forest showed a 16% decrease in cortisol; a 2% drop in blood pressure, and a 4% drop in heart rate vs people walking around a city.
Being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for goal focussed, analytical thinking rest and recharge. Our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because we are biologically hunter gathers – we have evolved to live in nature over millennia.
And here’s what’s cool. Even if you can’t get out in nature looking at images of life… mountains, forests, seascapes have the same effect!
4. Take a moment to be grateful
When we are thankful, the body releases dopamine (the brains’ reward hormone that boosts focus and motivation) and serotonin (a signal regulator that promotes our mood). Dopamine makes us feel good and is responsible for initiating action. It’s your brain saying, “Oh… that felt good! Do that again!” Even the act of searching for things to be grateful for boosts our serotonin levels.
And there have been multiple studies showing the benefits of gratitude which include increased determination, attention, enthusiasm, energy and less pain, anxiety, and depression.
Thinking of things, you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. It creates a virtuous circle where you will keep looking for positive aspects rather than purely negative. For mental health, it is potentially an essential activity to incorporate into your life.
Here are some tips
Make gratitude a habit. Like many things related to our brains, recognition only works when you practice it consistently. Once in a while is not sufficient to release the positive benefits.
Make time to reflect. Think of all the things you love about your life in moments of reflection. Ask, What do I get to do today? Write it down.
Sometimes things can get overwhelming.
Everyone experiences moments of feeling down overwhelmed or anxious at some point in life. While there is plenty that can do to help ensure good habits for your mental health when these feelings become the norm, it could be a sign that there is an underlying issue. The important thing is not to suffer alone.
Timely access to the right advice and support, sharing your thoughts and feelings with someone confidentially or a trusted friend and family member can make all the difference.
If in doubt, talk to someone. The act of taking action itself has a positive impact on your brain’s ability to cope.
About The Author
Tamsin is a Mindset and Performance coach, researcher, and marketer. A qualified NLP practitioner she fuses the latest neuroscience research with practical application to help people get control over their thinking and emotional responses to live healthier, happier lives.