Understanding and Managing Stress at Workplace

Stress management at work, work efficiency and breathing

Stress at work over-tunes our autonomic nerve system. This might make you feel irritated or otherwise uncomfortable, and it feels like you’re not getting anything done, because negative stress has weakened your situational awareness. The best way to manage these reactions and improve your performance in stressful situations is to calm down your autonomic nerve system by breathing. One of the most essential tools for stress management is breathing.

The occurrence of stress reaction at work place

What the following things have in common: feeling of urgency, negative demands from a client or colleague, the contradictions of your own expectations regarding the course of the day, excessive amount of things to deal with and constant interruptions during your workday that make it difficult to concentrate and get things done? Stress reaction. Acute stress reaction occurs when mind interprets stimulus or change in the environment somehow threatening. This interpretation is answered by the physiology of the body, and mind with diverse circular series of changes, stress is the sum of three factors:

  • Environment and stimulants
  • The interpretation of mind
  • The ability and resources of body and mind to handle load

Have you ever lost your temper in traffic or have you seen a person who has? Very likely. Traffic is one of the best examples of acute stress reaction. You drive a car and something unexpected appears in front of you (stimulus) which your mind interprets as a threat or problem. This interpretation causes emotional reaction (anxiety, irritation, fear or uncertainty). Physical changes that occur during an emotional reaction can be noticed as a sensation in your chest, sweating of your hands, heart starting to beat faster or stomach or head hurting. In other words, our thoughts affect our body. And this in its worst form negatively affects our situational awareness and decision-making capacity, leading to actions that can, in the worst case scenario, be fatal.

Can we influence stress reactions in the workplace ourselves? How?

Yes, we can, but it requires regular practise. In an acute stress reaction the key is first to influence our physiology because the stress reaction will override our autonomic nerve system and this makes it very difficult for us to influence our cognitive ability, our thinking, which in turn plays a central role in our stress intensity and behaviour.
The best way to calm our autonomic nerve system is by breathing. Especially when so-called “situation is on”. By first focusing on breathing so that the exhalation is slightly longer than the inhalation, it activates our parasympathetic nerve system, this so called “breaks” to our autonomic nerve system. When we get our nervous system to calm down it is much easier to influence the mind’s interpretation of the stimulus. The better your ability to interpret your mind gets, the better we can tolerate stress and pressure and deal with stressful situations at work.
When we practise breathing regularly every day we become less reactive and unexpected stimulants in our environment won’t affect us as they did before. This in turn leads to better situational awareness and decision-making ability, leading us to actions with better consequences for both ourselves and our environment.

Breathing exercises as a regular practise

One of the biggest challenges to get regular breathing exercises done is lack of motivation. We don’t see good enough reason to do it regularly. This is a bit strange in the sense that, in principle, people wish to have lower levels of stress. The situation could be compared when a person wants to be in better physical condition but doesn’t want to do any kind of exercise.
If we pay attention to our breathing every day for two minutes by exhaling out slightly longer than inhaling, and do this 2-4 times a day for eight weeks, the results will be significant. Stress levels decrease, creativity increases, hormonal function improves, lifestyle and weight management becomes easier, digestion improves and blood pressure decreases, risk of heart attack decreases, we cope better with feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, pain and frustration, cognitive skills strengthen, and concentration and observation improve. Plenty of good things happen, but not with one breathing exercise, only with regular practice for long enough.

As far as physical fitness is concerned, we understand better that going for a run once is not enough to get fit. You need to do it regularly, long enough and often enough to improve fitness. The same applies to mental fitness. Another common thing is that when you start running, it might feel painful, unnatural and frustrating at first. With breathing exercises people often face the same challenge. In addition to that, nowadays the environment is full of interesting stimulants which makes breathing exercises even more challenging.

Therefore it is important at the beginning just to concentrate to get it done, if it inspires you or not. By every week it gets easier and you begin to see more and more positive effects. After 40-60 days the habit becomes regular and you won’t need as much discipline as in the beginning. You will also notice positive effects on your mood, activity, stress management and productivity. And all this will make it easier to continue your practise.

Of course it is good to remember that breathing doesn’t solve all of our problems and challenges at work but according to studies it has significant effect to our performance, especially when acute stress hits. It is also good and concrete way to start to strengthen your mental performance which may be an abstract concept for many. When you manage to make a habit of breathing exercises it is much easier for you to start doing other stress management exercises, and you get much more benefits from them. These include e.g. building a philosophical ground, optimising cognitive rhythm, mind, image and concentration exercises, maximising energy levels, social skills and building habits. All these have significant effect to stress management, but first you should learn how to breathe.


Teemu Karppinen and Trainer4You Oy

Teemu Karppinen
Head of Training Programs and Professional Coach at Suomen Mentoritiimi Oy
Teemu is specialized in mental and physical performance, stress management and self-management. Teemu has trained executive teams and employees in numerous organisations in Finland and abroad. He has over 10 000 coaching sessions behind and he has trained over 100 stress management coaches in Finland.  



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The above text is from the September 11 webinar Lead yourself and manage your stress. Webinars are organized in cooperation with Trainer4You.


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