Holding down a demanding job these days can sometimes make you feel like your back is against the wall.
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But when that feeling follows you home and makes you want to punch the wall, that’s a problem. Work stress has invaded your downtime, threatening to mess with your personal life so you never score that breather everyone needs from the 9-to-5 pressure cooker.
Science backs up the way job anxiety chips away at your well being. Chronic stress at work that you’re bringing home regularly “does damage—it causes a rise in blood pressure, GI issues and brain cell death over the long haul,” says Gail Saltz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell Medical College.
If that doesn’t put job stress in perspective, listen to this: A 2015 Harvard and Stanford study even found that stress related to work is as bad as secondhand smoke exposure, insidiously seeping into your life like bus exhaust. Yikes.
Thinking about due dates and competitive coworkers when you should be chilling out and indulging in activities you love? It’s not what you’ve worked so hard for in your career. These strategies will help you create boundaries so the office can’t invade your brain after hours.
Diffuse During Your Commute
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Once you step away from the office, you’re on your own time. And even if your trip home is short, think of it as a transitional period when you don’t panic about deadlines or furiously answer emails that can wait until tomorrow. The expectation in today’s world is to always be available, Saltz says, so you need to create a barrier and ease out of work mode as you’re heading home.
To do this, lose yourself in activities you enjoy that you can do during your commute. Listen to the latest Serial podcast or Beyonce’s Lemonade; catch up on Inside Amy Schumer or John Oliver. Or do nada and quietly enjoy the time between your worlds. By the time you pull into your driveway, tomorrow’s meeting will be worlds away.
Sweat It Out
SoulCycle, Zumba Step, barre workouts. . . whatever exercise you’re into, doing it right after the workday helps you relieve tension accumulated for the last eight hours by prompting the release of calming neurotransmitters and stress-busting endorphins.
Can’t make it to the gym after 5? Don’t sweat it: Regular workouts at any time of the day still have stress-busting powers. That’s because the more fit you are, the better your body is at processing tension and anxiety. Even 10-to-15-minute bursts of activity randomly during the day are beneficial, says nutritionist Elisa Zied, R.D., author of “Younger Next Week.”
Change Your Scene
“Our physical environment profoundly impacts our psyche,” says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., psychologist and family therapist. Sounds a little woo-woo, but he’s onto something. To erase work stress, “you want to clearly differentiate your various work and home environments,” so home doesn’t look or feel like work and instead is all about relaxation.
Consider this the best reason ever to throw off your work clothes and change into comfy jeans or yoga pants as soon as you walk in the front door. Cook (or heat up) comfort foods like mac and cheese or roast chicken, so the delicious smell redirects your senses. Even lighting a candle with a scent you’ll never sniff in your office, like vanilla or citrus, can make a big difference.
The key is to create an inviting home environment that is nothing like work to help you shift gears, he says.
Quit Talking Shop
Maybe you’re crazy-angry because a backstabbing coworker tried to take credit for your work. Or a client you’re courting cancelled—again—on a conference call, and your manager is throwing serious shade your way, insinuating that you’re not working hard enough to seal the deal.
Your instinct might be to blow off steam at home, launching into a diatribe when your spouse innocently asks how your day went. But if you always vent about work as soon as you walk in the door, you’re bringing the office and all its stressors into your personal domain, Faisal Hoque, coauthor of “Survive to Thrive: 27 Practices of Resilient Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Leaders.”
“Unless something unusual happened, rehashing and ruminating over things to your friends or spouse sometimes just feeds the stress,” Hoque says, as it will just stay on your mind during your downtime and potentially snowball into a bigger deal than it really is. Research concurs, showing that ruminating on stressful issues can do more harm than good by keeping stress percolating in your brain. One 2013study even linked rumination to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.
Try a Mind Trick
This takes a bit of concentration, but hear us out. Make a habit of noticing when thoughts of work—and the waves of stress they prompt—invade your head. “When your brain is spinning, stop it in its tracks by counting from 1 to 100,” Hokemeyer suggests. “Then count from 1 to 100 again. Do this as many times as you need to quiet your mind and get it back to a resting place.”
This mind trick is a type of guided meditation, where concentrating on the process of counting increases your awareness of the present moment and reduces stress. With enough practice, the technique will become automatic, and you may only need to count to 10 to beat back stressful thoughts.
Schedule Blackout Time
Your devices are your lifeline, but they’re also a big driver of stress, keeping you tethered to clients and coworkers. Unless you really need to stay connected (and let’s face it, most of us don’t, at least not 24-7), log off your work email account for at least a few hours a day. This makes it that much harder to reflexively glance at your phone for notifications … and you might even break the habit.
“If you’re responding to emails all the time, the message is, ‘I’m always happy to be working!’” warns Saltz. We all need boundaries, and no one will set them for you if you don’t set them for yourself.
Plan Things to Look Forward To
Scheduling things you enjoy outside work hours will help you focus on fun and give you things to look forward to outside the work realm, says Hoque. Think: fantasy baseball, binge-watching “VEEP,” heading out to a new fusion restaurant, hanging out with your pets—anything that keeps your brain busy and engaged, so thoughts of tomorrow’s meeting can’t overwhelm you.