stress relief

Mental Wellness: Five Favorite Tools for Stress Reduction

By Kristen Harris

I am a big believer in mental health, mental wellness, brain health. Whatever you call it, I think it’s important. We exercise to keep our bodies healthy, why not our brains? I mean, I don’t want to lose any brain capacity, do you? Of course not! 

So here are a few ways I work to reduce stress and maintain mental health:

Work It Out. Exercise has many proven benefits–what’s good for the body is good for the mind. My doctor told me the best type of exercise “is the one you’ll do”. Run, walk, lift weights, yoga, dance, jump rope, just get moving. And make it convenient; we’re much more likely to stick with something if we like it and it easily fits into our routine. Personally, I have found that I need a lot of variety because I get easily bored doing the same thing every day or week. I mix it up with yoga, boxing, running, walking, pilates, cardio machines, weights, and yes, hula hooping. Other people love to just run every day. You do you, just do something.

Breathe It Out. Meditation has become uber-popular, to the point that it might seem complicated or off-putting to some people. Don’t stress out about meditating! Keep it simple by just sitting quietly and taking a few deep breaths. If you want to take it further try an app (I like Headspace), guided meditation, or a class. Regardless of the method, slowing down for a few minutes does wonders for my stress, anxiety, nervousness, frustration, anger and more. Sometimes I go into a conference room for a few minutes to decompress before a big meeting or after a challenging conversation.

Talk It Out. Sometimes we need to verbalize our fears, worries, frustrations or concerns; it really helps me to talk through things. Depending on the issue, I might reach out to a friend, spouse, trusted colleague, or mental health professional. I’m totally up for talking to anyone who can help me, and have no qualms about calling in a pro when I think that’s what I need. “Therapy” can sound intimidating like there’s an assumption that something is wrong with you. Just think of it as a really smart friend who is trained and wants to help you.

Write It Out. Whether you keep a daily journal, write in a notebook to work out an issue, or dump all your frustration on a piece of paper then burn it, writing can be very cathartic. It helps me work out issues, solve problems, come up with new ideas, and understand frustrations. Sometimes I just have to get it out so I can let it go. Which leads me to...

...Let It Go. If I can’t fix a problem or change the situation, and it’s just continuing to upset me, at some point I have to ask myself if it’s worth it. Do I want to keep letting this person or problem take up space rent-free in my brain? Am I spending more effort and energy worrying about it than they are? Is this really going to matter 20 years from now, or even 2? It can be easier said than done but often the best course of action for me is to...sing it with me...Let It Go!

Mental health and wellness are at least equally as important as physical health. Take a little time for yourself; you need and deserve it. My experience is that slowing down and doing these activities makes me a better, kinder person.
 

Viva Nica! The Power of Peer Groups and Getting Away

By Kristen Harris

My entrepreneur peer group took a trip to Nicaragua last week.

This one sentence and trip touch on three things I believe to be important in my life: time away (a trip), new experiences (to Nicaragua) and finding a tribe (my peer group).

Time Away

Today information is always available in the cloud and on our devices. We have the ability to work 24/7/365, but should we? I say no, and there’s evidence to back me up.

Over the past few years, there have been several studies and articles in publications like Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Inc Magazine touting the benefits of taking time away from work. Stepping away from work, taking a break, and going on vacation all have been shown to improve both the quality and quantity of work done when we are back.

Taking time out of the office allows me to gain clarity, changes my perspective, helps me see the bigger picture, and leaves me refreshed mentally and physically. Taking a trip is great, but I also try to enjoy the weekends, take a short walk during the day and step away from my desk for a few minutes during the workday. Even small breaks can have a big impact.

New Experiences

A lot of the work we do today is not physical labor, it’s mental labor. We have to figure out issues, solve problems, build relationships, research information and develop new concepts, then we might physically build something (or not). There is a lot of thinking done every day where we’re drawing upon prior knowledge and experiences.

Having a broader range of experiences gives me a deeper well to draw from. New experiences add more data, ideas, visuals, thoughts, and perspectives to my mental database.

New experiences also allow me to get out of my “bubble”. When I do the same things, talk to the same people and go the same places, my ideas tend to stay the same as well. When I do something new my potential ideas and solutions are expanded as well. In Nicaragua, I surfed (not well) and saw an awe-inspiring active volcano, two completely new experiences.

Finding a Tribe

While it’s good to expand horizons it’s also important to find your peer group, your tribe.

Humans are social and tribal. We connect with others where we have something in common and seek support from those who understand us. This can be done formally or informally through family, business groups, social clubs, neighbors and special interest organizations.

Like most people, I have different tribes related to different parts of my job and life. I’m a member of formal peer groups, like the one that took this trip, and informal groups that share a common connection, like all the dog-owners who live on my street.

These groups allow me to share issues and challenges with people who understand what I’m going through. They may have had the same experience, can share an idea or solution for me, or just be supportive as I figure it out. And, because we usually share one interest but are different in other ways, I find that I often become friends with people I would never have met otherwise.

Together all three of these things–time away, new experiences and finding a tribe–help to expand my perspective and enhance my work. Who knows what new idea that active volcano might inspire!

 

Why You Should Tell Your Team to Take a Break and Go Outside

By Emma Seppala and Johann Berlin for the Harvard Business Review

Wellness programs are becoming an integral priority for most human resource managers. After all, research shows that a happier workplace is more productive. To this end, workplaces are adding health-related perks from exercise rooms to yoga classes. Leaders participate in mindfulness and compassion trainings and are coached to learn emotional intelligence. However, there is one important wellness factor that many are forgetting even though it may be the most potent of all: access to green spaces.

Greenery isn’t just an air-freshener that’s pleasant to look at, it can actually significantly boost employee well-being, reduce stress, enhance innovative potential, and boost a sense of connection. Yet most of us don’t spend much time in nature. Richard Louv, author of the Nature Principal, argues that we’re collectively suffering from “nature-deficit disorder,” which hurts us mentally, physically, and even spiritually. Adding a little wilderness to your corporate officesmay just be the smartest move you can do this year.

For one, exposure to green spaces profoundly enhances physical and mental well-being which is why corporations like Google prioritize biophilia as a core design principle. Studies are showing these interventions can reduce not just everyday stress but also boost general health. Taking walks in nature lowers anxiety and depression while boosting mood and well-being, a large-scale studyshowed. Exposure to more light can boost Vitamin D levels that are known to increase mood, especially in colder months.

Scientists are also exploring how exposure to nature might result in lower risk of depression, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. The immune system certainly receives a boost from stress-reduction, and even just the sounds of nature trigger a relaxation response in the brain. Exposure to natural environments lowers stress,including its physiological correlates the “stress hormone” cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. By boosting mood, natural environments may also decrease inflammation at the cellular level.

In short, even a small green intervention like having more plants in the office could significantly boost employee happiness, and we know that happiness is a powerful predictor of an organization’s success. Corporations can significantly reduce organizational health costs by introducing more green spaces and plants into an office space. As Florence Williams has exhaustively reviewed in her recent book The Nature Fix, “forest bathing” have become popular practices in many East Asian countries because the impact of even a few minutes of immersion in nature has measurable benefits not just for our psychological well-being but also our physical health.

Greener office environments can boost employee performance and decision-making. One study found that exposure to greenery through office plants boosted not just employee well-being but also productivity  - by 15%! Lead researcher Marlon Nieuwenhuis concludes: “Our research suggests that investing in landscaping the office with plants will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.” For one, plants, natural environments and greener offices offer superior air quality which in turn strengthens employee cognitive function – allowing them to perform at their best.

Here’s why this may be the case: Neurosciencist and founder of My Brain Solutions Dr Evian Gordon proposes that “the brain’s attunement to nature has a seminal evolutionary origin, beginning with the earliest species sensing and responding to their environment. Our ancestral hominids (australopithecus, homo habilis, and homo erectus) evolved in response to short-term survival pressures within the rhythms of nature.” Dr Gordon who has published more then 300 scientific papers draws upon insights from the world’s largest standardized brain function database, that shows the immediate and significant extent to which any sensory input creates changes in the brain and body. Stress impacts the heart’s rhythms, for example. Unnatural environments are a subtle form of distraction and stress to optimal brain processing. Natural environments have the opposite effect.

Moreover, research shows that exposure to a natural environment helps people be less impulsive (while urban settings do the opposite). In this particular study, participants were asked if they’d prefer to make $100 immediately or $150 in 90 days. Those who had either been in a natural environment (or simply looked at photos of a natural environment) were more likely to make the more rational and beneficial decision: wait for the $150. Such was not the case for those exposed to cityscapes. Exposure to nature may therefore foster boost superior decision-making which includes better foresight. Exposure to natural environments also strengthens attention and may even help strengthen memory.

Finally, we know that the #1 trait leaders look for in incoming employees is creativity, and exposure to natural environments dramatically improves our ability to think expansively and make superior decisions. Being in nature is a core element of New York designer Joanne DePalma’s work, inspiring her most iconic designs, including the flagship store for Tiffany in Paris, and leading her to creative breakthroughs, including creating one of the world’s most sustainable carpets with Bently Prince Street. “Nature inspires my design and restores me,” she shares. “Whether I’m feeling stuck or exhausted during a long and grueling project, or just need some new ideas, a visit to the waterfront or Central Park gets me back to the source of my creativity. I find so many complex design solutions are hidden in nature.”

Nature can have a positive influence on workplace culture by strengthening employees’ values and leading to greater harmony and connection. Exposure to nature doesn’t just make you feel and think better, it also makes you behave better. People who’ve just walked out of a park or other natural environment are more likely to notice when others need help – and to provide that help. In line with these findings, researchers at the University of Rochester found that exposure to nature resulted in participants valuing community and connectedness over more superficial concerns like personal gain and fame. Participants also became more generous and willing to share with others.

As the lead author Netta Weinstein observes, “we are influenced by our environment in ways we are not aware of….to the extent that our links with nature are disrupted, we may also lose some connection with each other.” Given that there are fewer and fewer “human moments” in the workplace yet that employee well-being is in large part due to positive social connections with other people, embracing greener environments could be tremendously beneficial for a workplace. Other studies have confirmed that exposure to nature leads to less antisocial behavior and more social connection and harmony.

Even a very small exposure to nature – as little as five minutes – can produce dramatic benefits, especially when coupled with exercise like walking or running. In many of the studies mentioned above, the effect was observed after participants simply looked at pictures of nature (vs urban environments) for a few minutes or worked in an office with (or without) plants — easy touches to add to a work setting.

While creating a “green office” may seem daunting, it really isn’t. Here are some easy ways you can make your officer greener

  • Encourage your staff to have “walking meetings” outside.
  • Encourage your staff to sit outside or in naturally lit areas on breaks or during lunch.
  • Provide outdoor walking, meeting, and sitting spaces.
  • If outdoor spaces are not available or you are in an urban environment, create an indoor garden in an atrium or, if space is at a premium, a vertical “green wall.”
  • Light rooms with natural sunlight as much as possible. Open blinds and, if possible, windows to let in outside air and natural sounds.
  • Display nature photography or artwork.
  • Play nature videos or nature slides on your television or display screens.
  • Place as many plants as you can prominently around the office (making sure a designated person takes good care of them).
  • Move your office closer to a park or natural environment.

An increasing interest at Google and similar companies is to make green spaces that are also respectful of the natural environment as a habitat for local animals and plants. Not only are these companies promoting employee well-being, but also reducing their ecological footprint.

Even if your company’s management is unwilling or unable to do these things, you can try a few out yourself: a walking meeting with a colleague, taping a photo of your favorite nature scene to your cubicle, or listening to ambient nature sounds on your headphones. Remember the words of German poet Rainer Marie Rilke: “If we surrendered / to earth’s intelligence / we could rise up rooted, like trees.”