“This 5-minute visual trick got me through the most intense week at work and now I’m a convert”

Written by Katy Harrington

Katy Harrington is Stylist’s commissioning editor and acting deputy digital editor.

Dealing with stress and burnout at work is a feeling lots of us can relate to. We asked a workaholic to try The Curiosity Academy masterclass to manage chronic stress and feeling overwhelmed and fatigued. Here’s how she got on…

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I’m the kind of person who used to handle stress with a cigarette and a glass of wine. It worked for a while, but it too is subject to the law of diminishing returns and, in time, my rudimentary coping methods left me ragged and worn out. The candle burnt so badly at both ends there was almost nothing left.

Eventually, I was signed off work for two weeks by a doctor. When I returned, I swore to do something more effective to deal with stress better and never let it get on top of me again.

I was already a convert to short meditations (three to five minutes is the longest I’ll ever attempt in the morning or during the work day), breathing exercises, regular breaks (even if it’s just to make a cup of tea) as well as limiting myself to drinking just two days a week to help my clarity, focus and anxiety. That said, I’m always searching for ways to improve.

So, when a colleague mentioned a masterclass with a brain biohacker who promises to have the answers to career-driven burnout, I put my hand up straight away. Lockdown and working from home have many of us working longer hours (not to mention those in the NHS or others on the front line) and I want to keep up the good habits I’ve started and not slip into my old ways.

The biohacker is Charlène Gisèle, an ex-lawyer turned health coach who suffered her own career burnout. She gives the kind of science-backed, rigorously tested, expert-endorsed no-nonsense advice that I like.

Charlène is also a believer in incremental changes and so everything in her jam-packed hour-long masterclass, How To Manage Work Stress And Banish Burnout, feels immensely doable. There are also helpful recaps at the end of every section (some of which I screen grabbed – because head/sieve and all that). 

During a very busy week of deadlines, planning, back-to-back meetings and important decisions, here are some of the sections of Charlène’s class that helped me most. 

Breath and the brain     

The class begins with a very good reminder: breath is with you all day. “Think of it as your new superpower,” says Charlène. She’s not joking. 

Charlène introduces us to some basic breathing techniques. She’s a fan of the psychological sigh (practised by babies and dogs) which involves a sharp double inhale through the nose and then a single exhale through the mouth (or if you want the onomatopoeic version: sniff, sniff, sigh). 

Then the course gets a little more technical. We delve into the functions of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). For me, if these are out of whack it is accompanied by high anxiety (scatterbrained and full of nervous energy during the day and not sleeping or waking with worry about work at night). 

Sound familiar? Well, the good news is by learning a few simple breathing techniques – that don’t require a smartwatch or any other fancy kit, and can be done anywhere and anytime – you can tap into rest and digest. It’s also free (which appeals to my inner frugal queen). 

My favourite of all the breathing techniques was a deceptively simple method called‘box breathing’ and it’s since helped me through stressful days. It involves closing your eyes and visualising yourself drawing a box; breathing in for five seconds while you draw the first line, out for five for the second and repeat until all sides are drawn in your mind. (You can use your finger to pretend to draw the imaginary box in the air if that helps). Do it five times before a big call, presentation or stressful day and see what a difference it makes. Biohackers, yogis, and Navy SEALs all swear by box breathing – now so do I.  

Become a single tasker 

One of Charlène’s most useful lessons was “mastering single focus”. Lots of us can relate to starting work on a Monday morning only to face a barrage of 30 Slack messages, 160 emails in your inbox, and your boss calling you urgently. That’s before you get down to your actual job. The trick here is to do the task in front of you and that ONLY.

It’s easier said than done, but once you’ve turned notifications off (or at least paused them) and put your phone away, you can really focus and your productivity skyrockets. 

Forget multitasking (where you might be doing three things at the same time, but to what standard?) and adopt single focus. It’s a powerful tool, and it’s one that’s helped me outside work too. I tried this at a family dinner; really listening to what people were saying rather than trying to watch my risotto cooking or load the dishwasher and, newsflash, it really works to improve personal relationships as well.  

 Manage time not stress

One nugget from the masterclass I particularly enjoyed was the idea of forgetting about managing stress (which can feel intangible) and instead focusing on managing time, which feels far more familiar and feasible. The key is to set specific goals – make them crystal clear and achievable. 

For example, last Friday I had six important emails to send which I had been fretting about. After listening to Charlène’s advice, I wrote each email I had to send down in a list, marked out a fixed time I had to complete each one by and then made myself very happy and proud by ticking them off one by one. Bite-sized and trackable is the way to go here.

Another game-changing lesson focuses on our attitude to discipline (which no one likes the sound of, especially if you had strict teachers at school or parents) but, as Charlène emphasises, learning to love discipline at work can make our work days easier. 

A foolproof example of this is the ‘eat the frog’ method(i.e get the ‘worst’ bits over first, then everything else feels like a breeze). If you’ve been dreading a meeting or task, put it in your calendar early and clear it off your to-do list asap. Doing the non-negotiable task first thing is a surefire way to avoid feeling overwhelmed. When I tried this it was revelatory. Doing the one thing I was dreading at 8am meant I could go about the rest of my day without that sinking feeling of quiet dread. 

It’s easy (and astute) to be sceptical about many aspects of the self-improvement and wellness industry. All this talk of optimisation and achieving my full potential or ‘peak performance’ leaves me cold, but there’s little of that in Charlène’s masterclass. Instead, it’s a class full of pragmatism and methods tried, tested and rated by fellow stress heads. The best news is that no radical change is needed; even trying one of these small methods will make a big difference. Now all I have to do is keep it up. 

If you want to banish burnout for good, join Charlène Gisèle’s class How To Manage Work Stress And Banish Burnout on The Curiosity Academy.

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