Eight quick tricks to defuse your tension at work

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It’s more than just a worn cliché that someone who's stressed makes a beeline for a hit of chocolate, alcohol, nicotine or, increasingly, social media. Researchers have now shown that stress pushes the brain into a reward-seeking state, activating the same triggers that drive our cravings.

Part of the challenge in dealing with stress is learning how to resist these surreptitious treats. Various studies conclude that instituting practices such as routine meditation or ongoing exercise programs are more beneficial for lowering overall stress levels.

But they don't provide an immediate solution when things hit the fan in the middle of a work day. What will help are tricks designed to fool the body into operating as if it's in a state of relaxation.

Breathe: Stop what you’re doing, focus on something innocuous – even the air-conditioning vent in the ceiling – and take a deep breath. Hold it for three seconds, then release. You’ve heard this before, but for every stress response there is an equal and opposite relaxation response that can be triggered by purposely slowing the respiratory and heart rate.

Smile: The facial feedback hypothesis has been around for a long time. While new research has cast doubt on whether forced facial expressions are as effective at tricking the brain into feeling certain emotions as once thought, it’s still commonly held that the act of smiling, even if you have nothing to smile about, releases endorphins, reduces cortisol and curbs the body’s stress response.

Progressive relaxation: Take a minute to mentally scan your body and notice how it feels when it's tense and when it's relaxed. Begin by squeezing your toes as hard as possible for a few seconds, then release. Do the same for your calf muscles, your hamstrings, your quads and then your core, moving all the way up your body, over each arm, across your shoulders and neck, then to your face. Squeeze your face up tightly and relax.

Walk away from your desk: If you’re too embarrassed to breathe deeply or smile randomly in the office, walk to the bathroom or find a spare meeting room where you can practice the exercises. The added benefit is that moving away from the computer immediately gives your fatigued brain an opportunity to rest, and temporarily negates any visual queues, such as that pile of draft reports, which might be latent stressors.

Chew gum: For something more discreet, researchers from Swinburne University showed that chewing gum while multitasking can lower cortisol levels and reduce anxiety, increase alertness and improve overall performance.

Schedule a catch up: It takes less than a minute to send an email or text to a friend or family member you’ve been neglecting lately or who you miss seeing, to organise a catch-up. It’s the equivalent of ticking something off your subconscious (or conscious) to-do list, with the added benefit of anticipated enjoyment and social interaction. Be sure it’s someone you genuinely want to spend time with. Doing something only because you feel obliged to creates underlying anxiety.

Sniff a favourite scent: Smell is one of the most powerful senses when it comes to triggering an emotional response: the signals are sent directly to the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system rules emotions but is also connected to the areas which control blood pressure, heart rate and hormone balance. Essential oils such as Bergamot, Clary Sage and Angelica may all reduce anxiety.

Write: Stream of consciousness writing may be difficult to start with, but has numerous benefits and can be done anywhere. Use a pen and paper and take a minute to write down whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to make sense, rather, it’s the simple act of purging the brain’s internal monologue which brings relief.