If you’re like most people, you spin a lot of plates during the workday, often skipping the present moment to get to the next item on your agenda. You hop in and out of the shower to get to the office instead of being in the shower. Maybe you multitask to get everything done before calling it a day instead of being present with each job task. You rush through dinner to watch TV instead of being present with your meal and loved ones.
What’s wrong with this picture? If you’re “always on,” the slightest inconvenience can trip your inner alarm system, causing you to lose your cool before you know it. Over time, work stress has, in effect, kidnapped you, and you’re probably not aware of it or haven’t given much thought to doing anything about it. What you do notice, though, is the shrinkage of your job contentment and mental well-being—maybe even work performance. Yet, you may not know what to do about it.
When the mind hijacks us into worry, rumination or pessimism, it magnifies our perception of threats. Eventually, this pattern of thinking catches up with us, compromising our mental and physical health and work performance. And we may not even realize it’s happening. But here’s the good news. According to a new body of research, you can discover a whole set of secrets on how to improve your mental health if you start to examine your thoughts, as if you’re observing them under a microscope. It’s simple science and easy to do. The best part is the skill of witnessing the swirling thoughts that trap you and the tools to get unstuck in 10 minutes or less. These tools reduce work anxiety and help you concentrate and focus—ultimately maximizing your mental health and wellness, job performance and career success.
5 Tools To Externalize And Examine Your Thoughts
- Mindful working. The moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening inside and immediately around you as you move through your workday pays off. It involves bringing your full non-judgmental attention to body sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise on the job. Instead of attacking yourself when things fall apart, a mindful, self-compassionate attunement eases you through work stress and burnout, business failures, job loss or worry and anxiety about career goals. Once you’re aware of the work stress, you can put it under the microscope by not pushing it away, ignoring, battling, debating nor steamrolling over it. Instead, step back, hold it at arm’s length and observe it without reacting—much like you would inspect a blemish on your hand. Let yourself grow curious about its roots and perhaps even how it’s trying to protect you from an impending threat.
- Self-talk. Recognize and talk to the work stress as if it’s another person on the inside with something like, “Hello, Stress. I see you’re really stirred up.” At first, this tool might sound odd. But well-established research shows that non-first-person self-talk—the way we speak to someone else, referring to ourselves as “you” instead of as “I”—creates psychological distance from the stress voice. Silently observing and talking to your work stress, trying to understand it with empathy—just like you would wonder about another person—expands your perspective so that the stress voice’s story isn’t the only story in your head. As the larger perspective sheds a different light on the scenario, you start to feel calmer and more clear-minded.
- Positive mind wandering. Research from Harvard and other institutions of higher learning has shown that idle moments without imperatives—nothing to rush to, fix or accomplish—actually add to your mental and physical health: greater productivity, better memory, stronger immune system, fewer health problems, greater happiness and longer life. But a recent study in Scientific Reports found that the benefits depend on whether the idle thinking is positive or negative. Negative circling thoughts—such as worry or rumination—can lead to depression, anxiety and self-focus that sidetrack us from job tasks—even to a shorter lifespan. But positive mind wandering—such as inspirational topics or looking forward to reaching career goals—gives the mind a needed break from self-induced pressures or external work demands and increases mental well-being.
- Stress journaling. Studies show that jotting down your thoughts, feelings, worries and stressors can improve your mental health. A stress journal is like a silent friend, nearby anytime of the day and wee hours of the morning when friends, health care providers or support systems are not available. Stress journaling gives you a bird’s-eye view of stressful work triggers and how you react to them. It shows a pattern of how you handle job pressures and areas where you can develop better coping skills. Plus, it maps the progress you make in dealing with stress over time.
- Talk therapy. Nowadays, if you seek therapy, it’s considered a sign of resourcefulness. The average therapy client struggles with many of the same problems we all struggle with on a daily basis: relationships, self-doubt, confidence, self-esteem, work/life stress, life transitions, depression and anxiety. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted counselor or close friend for help. Hearing yourself talk out loud about your work stressors is like sitting on the river bank and observing the water you’re swimming in. Talking out loud to another person expands your awareness and gives you a clearer picture of the career stressors you’re dealing with, how well you’re handling them and steps you can take to overcome them.