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Learn & Practice

Getting Off the Hamster Wheel: Stress at Work and Beyond

By Stephanie Wagner, NBC-HWC
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Prior to joining the team at Healthy Minds Innovations, I spent the bulk of my career working in Learning and Development at Aveda–an environmentally conscious beauty company. As Executive Director of Global Retail Education, my job was both gratifying and extremely stressful. One of things I dealt with regularly (and maybe you do too!) was looking at the back-to-back meetings on my calendar and thinking “How am I going to get my one million projects and tasks done today?” That experience immediately triggered me into a state of overwhelm–feeling trapped by my calendar with no space to get my work done–ensuring my work week would trickle into my evenings and weekends. 

Is Stress Your “Business as Usual?”

Like many professionals working around tight deadlines, large scale projects, and business-driving initiatives, I lived in a state of chronic stress. Anxiety and insomnia were “business as usual” during that time and I found it very difficult to find ease. My mind was like a hamster wheel of thoughts–generating so much stress as I agonized in the middle of the night about my never-ending to do list. Fortunately early in my career, I was introduced to the practice of meditation which was instrumental in helping me cope with the stressful demands of work and home.

As I’ve been teaching and speaking to our Healthy Minds @Work  customers this summer, I’ve heard stories about unprecedented stress levels due to COVID19. Many are experiencing job stress similar to what I experienced early in my career, but with additional layers of complexity such as parenting with virtual/hybrid classrooms, remote work, compromised income, illness, and more. 

It makes sense that we are stressed. From a biological perspective, humans can’t differentiate between an emotional threat and an existential one. When we experience an emotionally stressful situation, our brain kicks into high gear–replaying it over and over again–and this loop results in thoughts and emotions that can activate the stress response in the body. This can get us stuck in a state of hyperarousal. 

What’s Your Coping Strategy?

This feeling of being stressed out is so incredibly unpleasant that we often turn to unhealthy choices to get rid of those feelings–that nightly glass of wine, junk food, or numbing out in front of the TV. There is no judgement here around these things, but it can be helpful to look at the intention behind it. Am I using these activities to get rid of the pain and tune out? Is this something I want to be doing regularly as a coping strategy? 

Change Your Relationship to Stress

The good news is that we can change our relationship to stress through training the mind in qualities associated with well-being. It’s not that the stress is going to magically disappear, but we can change the way we relate to it. Rather than pushing it away or trying to get rid of it, we can step out of the stress with awareness and treat ourselves with kindness and care.

Two practices that have been extremely helpful in my own path to navigating stress have also been studied at the Center for Healthy Minds: simple breath awareness and loving-kindness meditation. 

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Breathing meditation helps me get out of my head and into my body. That state of stress can make the breath high in the chest and shallow. Awareness of the breath can often be calming and slow things down–especially with a focus on lengthening the outbreath. However, it’s important to listen to your body and if paying attention to the breath is making you more anxious, try this tour of the senses practice instead.

Healthy Minds @Work Tip: Take three intentional breaths, with awareness, before starting a regular work task (i.e. email or logging into a zoom meeting)

Loving-kindness practice helps me to treat my stress with kindness and care, rather than aversion. This practice helps me get in touch with my desire for happiness and to see that my reaction to stress is a natural response to my desire for things to be better.

Healthy Minds @Work Tip: Wish yourself happiness in those stressful moments at work. Notice when you are having a hard time and connect with your desire to be happy, by reciting a short phrase in your mind “May I be happy” or bring awareness to that felt sense in the body.

HM@Work Meditations Workplace Wednesdays