Ready to Snap at Work? Get in Touch With Your Inner Animal

By Phyllis Korkki, The New York Times
Jetta Productions | Getty Images

Ever experienced a bout of anxiety at work?

I just did.

One day last week I had several assignments to finish in quick succession. I could feel thoughts pinging around in my brain as I tried and failed to decide what to focus on first. Once I was able to get the pandemonium under control, my brain felt like mush.

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So what did I do? I breathed deeply from the middle of my body. I imagined the top of my head, and pictured arrows coming out the sides of my shoulders. I stood up for a while and then walked around the newsroom. And went back to work.

These simple solutions to anxiety are not so easy to practice in an era of multitasking, multiple screens and mindless distractions. I learned them only after signing a contract to write a book — and becoming so anxious about it that I developed back and stomach pains. Unable to score a prescription for Klonopin (it's addictive, my doctor said), I was reduced to seeking out natural methods to relieve my anxiety.

The methods I learned helped me write the book. But they also made me realize that workers of all stripes could use them to reduce stress, and to think more clearly and creatively.

My first stop was Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist who teaches — or rather reteaches — people how to breathe. Dimly I sensed that the way I was inhaling and exhaling was out of whack, and she confirmed it by giving me some tests.

First off, like most people, I was a "vertical" breather, meaning my shoulders moved upward when I inhaled. Second, I was breathing from my upper chest, where the lungs don't have much presence.

In her Manhattan studio, Dr. Vranich taught me the right way to breathe: horizontally and from the middle of the body, where the diaphragm is. You should expand your belly while inhaling through your nose, she said, and squeeze your belly inward while exhaling.

At first, this seemed counterintuitive. And yet it is the natural way to breathe — the way children and animals do it, Dr. Vranich said. It's when society begins to exert its merciless pressure on us that we start doing things the wrong way.

When we are under stress at work, we tend to brace and compress ourselves, and our field of vision becomes narrow, Dr. Vranich said in a recent interview. This causes us to breathe more quickly and shallowly. The brain needs oxygen to function, of course, and breathing this way reduces the supply, causing muddled thinking. Also, the digestive system doesn't receive the movement and massage it needs from the diaphragm, and that can lead to problems like bloating and acid reflux, she said.

Stress can send people into fight-or-flight mode, which can lead them to brace their bellies to appear strong. This is exactly the stance that interferes with calm, alert thinking, Dr. Vranich said.

The fight-or-flight response means business. It developed early when our ancestors needed it as protection from predators. It was so crucial to survival that it has stuck around to this day, as a response to stress.

Just enough stress (such as the kind provided by a realistic deadline) gets your adrenaline going and pushes you through to the finish line. But too much (the kind you feel when you have too many deadlines you know you can't meet) can push you into fight or flight, causing you to crouch, clench and tense.

I was also feeling pain and tension in my back and shoulders as I started to write my book — as if my body were trying to hide from a lion. So I took posture lessons.

When I told people I was working on my posture, they tended to feel ashamed of their slouchiness and lifted their chins, pulled their shoulder blades together and stiffened their necks and shoulders. But that is exactly what you don't want to do, said my posture teacher, Lindsay Newitter, who runs a company in New York called the Posture Police. Rather, you want to gently release the tension that you may not even be aware is compressing your body.

Ms. Newitter helped me undo habits that had been tensing me up for years. Having an expert try to correct your unique postural peculiarities can be a help, but even without lessons, a few basic principles can help you get through the workday.

First, as mentioned, simply imagine the top of your head. At the risk of looking like a monkey, you can even touch the top of your head to get a sense of where it is in space (you may be surprised at how off you were). This act of imagination gently guides you into better alignment.

Imagining horizontal arrows moving in opposite directions from the sides of your shoulders expands your chest area and allows you to breathe more freely.

Try to be aware of any part of the body where you are exerting more tension than you need. For example, the effort of operating your mouse should come more from your fingers than from gripping it with your hand, your wrist and your whole arm, Ms. Newitter said. The same principle applies to typing.

Good posture helps you feel "spready instead of squished," Ms. Newitter said recently, quoting her 9-year-old daughter.

Ms. Newitter teaches a method known as the Alexander Technique, which was developed in the 19th century by Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor who invented it to cure his career-killing hoarseness. He came up with a concept known as "end gaining," which has arguably only worsened as computers and smartphones have come on the scene. It means trying to get somewhere before you are actually there, so you are not inhabiting your own body in the present.

Screens aggravate end-gaining because they cause people to curl forward to meet them, which compresses the spine, Ms. Newitter said. Let the screen come to you rather than lurch out toward it, she said.

Another important point I learned in my quest to calm down is that to do our best work, we need to move around. People mistakenly think that being in one position for a long period will improve concentration, but the body needs to move and take regular breaks to focus, said Alan Hedge, an ergonomics professor at Cornell University.

We've all heard that sitting for long periods is bad for you, but standing for a long time isn't good either, Professor Hedge said. You need to mix it up. He has done research showing that workers should sit for roughly 20 minutes, stand for about eight minutes and move around for two minutes.

This formula does not have to be exact. And once in a while, when you are in the magical state known as "flow," where you are completely absorbed in your task and lose track of time, it doesn't apply.

But as a rule, getting up and moving around is beneficial. And if you're stuck on an assignment, moving from one room to another can actually help recalibrate the brain, Professor Hedge said.

A chair is essentially an antigravity device, he said, and "gravitational stimulation is really important for the body." Research from NASA has shown that you need to have a regular sense of yourself in gravity to work effectively. "You need to get at least 16 of those signals a day," he said, by standing up, sitting down or moving around.

These basic lessons about the body can be hard to remember in the heat of a stressful moment. Even now, I still catch myself freezing in my chair like a cornered animal when I feel overwhelmed at work. But now I know I have the power to arise, expand and unscrunch, and to banish that imaginary lion from my cubicle.

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