Deadlines, decisions, kids at home, mountains of email and Zoom fatigue… Even those of us fortunate enough to be able to work through the Covid pandemic have plenty of stressors to deal with.

Our body’s stress response was designed to help us manage short-term issues, and when these accumulate through the days, weeks and months they can start to overwhelm our capacity to cope. If you’ve been relying on an after-work drink, or dreams of a long-postponed holiday, you could consider another approach. 

Rather than waiting to down-regulate from the stress of your day, why not factor in a few mindful moments through your day to give your nervous system regular opportunities to reset.

In as little as a minute you can use one of these yoga tools and techniques for rapid stress relief. You could repeat your favorite every couple of hours, or mix them up depending on how you feel in the moment.

1. Breath Reset

The breath is a superhighway to the central nervous system. When we are relaxed, our breath is soft and slow. When we experience stress, our breath becomes shorter and shallower. Fortunately the highway goes two ways; altering breath pace and depth can also rapidly change the state of the nervous system. Slowing and lengthening the out-breath is a quick way to down regulate our nervous system to feel more calm[1].

Try it for yourself. Research suggests that views of nature can help us recover from feelings of stress[2], so it could help to look toward a window, potted plant or even an image of nature on your screensaver. Plant your feet hip-width apart on the floor and sit upright to give your lungs a little more room to expand, resting your hands on your abdomen. Create a soft, unfocused gaze, taking in a broad sense of color, light and shape rather than zooming in on details. Inhale softly through your nose, feeling your belly expand, then exhale slowly through your nose, letting your forehead, jaw and neck soften. Take five more smooth and steady breaths, lingering in each exhalation to encourage your   system to settle and slow.

2. Tune in to Touch

Sometimes when we are stressed or anxious, it’s difficult to focus on our breath alone. Physical touch, especially when slow and gentle, can be surprisingly helpful. It seems to be linked to decreased pain perception, lower blood pressure, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increased levels of the well-being hormone oxytocin[3]. While we can’t necessarily ask a co-worker for a hug, we can use self-touch.

Five finger breathing is a simple technique that harnesses physical touch to help center and soothe a racing mind. One hand traces the outline of other hand in sync with your breathing, focusing your attention on one of the most sensitive parts of your body, as well as the internal rhythm of your breath.

Rest one hand on your desktop or lap with palm facing up. Bring the tip of the pointer finger of the other hand to the outer base of your pinky finger, and exhale. Look down at your hands and tune unto the sensitivity there, letting your shoulders rest heavy on your ribcage. Use your whole in-breath to move your index finger to your pinky tip, and your whole out-breath to trace down the inner pinky finger toward your ring finger. Repeat up and down your outer ring finger, up and down your middle finger, and so on, until you reach the inner edge of your thumb. Either finish there, or repeat the practice in reverse to feel your way back to the outer pinky finger.  

3. Neck and Shoulder Release

Sometimes the subtlety of breath and body awareness just aren’t enough to cut through  the mental clutter and moving or stretching can help[4]. This seated sequence is easy to do without leaving your work chair and releases common stress hot spots: the neck, shoulders and jaw.

Once again plant your feet hip-width apart on the floor and sit tall. Sweep your arms out wide and overhead. Interlace your fingers, flip the heels of your palms toward the ceiling, look up and lean slightly back. Release your clasp, drape your left arm over the top of your head and bring your fingers over your right temple to draw your left ear toward your left shoulder. Bring your right arm down by your side, catching the underside of your seat with your right fingers to increase the feeling of length down the right side of your neck. Take three slow breaths there, opening and closing your mouth to release any tension in your jaw, then repeat the movement on your second side.

4. Stand and Stretch

Taking the opportunity to stand can maximize the benefits of stretching even more by involving larger muscle groups and refreshing any postural habits that have accumulated from sitting.

Try this quick standing sequence to hit the reset button on your stress levels. Come to stand, making sure you have clear space behind you. Lean onto your right foot and bend your knee, then cross your left leg behind your right. Sweep your left arm overhead and lean your torso toward the right, creating a long left side body stretch. Take a breath there, then bring your torso back to centre. Keep your right knee bent and take a long step back with your left foot, setting your left heel roughly hip-width from your right. Clasp your hands behind your head with your elbows wide, gently pressing your head into your hands to active the muscles at the back of your neck. Draw your pubic bone toward your navel, looking for a stretch over the front of your left hip, and take another deep, slow breath. Release your hands and step forward to repeat the sequence on the second side.

You don’t have to wait until the end of your work day to feel better. In as little as a minute, without even leaving your workspace, you can feel more clarity and calm, better able to handle the rest of your work day with grace.

Reading and References:

Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Roderik J. S. Gerritsen and Guido P. H. Band. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, October 2018.

Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels. Hidenobu Sumioka, Aya Nakae, Ryota Kanai, and Hiroshi Ishiguro. Scientific Reports, October 2013.

Muscle stretching as an alternative relaxation training procedure. C. R. Carlson, F. L. Collins Jr, A. J. Nitz, E. T. Sturgis and J. L. Rogers. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, May 1990.

The soothing function of touch: affective touch reduces feelings of social exclusion. Mariana von Mohr, Louise P. Kirsch, and Aikaterini Fotopoulou. Scientific Reports, October 2017.

Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress. Daniel K. Brown, Jo L. Barton, and Valerie F. Gladwell. Environmental Science and Technology, June 2013.

[1] Gerritsen et al. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity.

[2] Brown et al. Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress.

[3] Sumioka et al. Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels.

[4] Carlson et al. Muscle stretching as an alternative relaxation training procedure.