Learning To Be Calm: The Neuroscience Behind Workplace Stress

4 min read
18 June 2024
Learning To Be Calm: The Neuroscience Behind Workplace Stress

When coaching people with the i4 Neuroleader™ Assessment, one of the most common areas for improvement that I notice is ‘how to learn to manage tension in the workplace’. The pressure to perform, meet deadlines, and juggle multiple tasks can lead to a constant state of tension and anxiety. This tension not only affects our productivity but also impacts our overall well-being. In this article, I’ll explore what happens in the brain when we are tense and discuss strategies to cultivate a calmer and more balanced approach to work.

The Tension Trap

“I often feel a sense of urgency and pressure from the moment I start my workday,” says one of my clients as we explore this topic. “Whether it's an overflowing inbox, an upcoming presentation, or the need to multitask, my default response is to tense up. This tension manifests physically through tight shoulders, a clenched jaw, shallow breathing, racing thoughts and difficulty focusing”, she continues to explain.

What Happens in the Brain When We Are Tense

When we are tense, our brain initiates the “fight or flight” response, a survival mechanism that prepares us to face perceived threats. This response involves several key changes in the brain and body:

Amygdala Activation:

The amygdala, the brain's fear centre, becomes highly active. It assesses potential threats and sends distress signals to other parts of the brain.

Hypothalamus and Pituitary Gland:

The hypothalamus activates the pituitary gland, which releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare the body to respond to danger by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels.

Prefrontal Cortex Suppression:

The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thinking and decision-making, becomes less active during stress. This can impair our ability to think, make decisions, and stay focused.

Hippocampus Impact:

The hippocampus, crucial for memory and learning, can be affected by prolonged stress. High cortisol levels can impair its function, leading to memory problems and difficulties in learning.

The Effects of Chronic Tension

Chronic tension can have lasting effects on the brain and body. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can lead to:

Reduced Cognitive Function: Impaired memory, concentration and decision-making abilities.

Increased Anxiety and Depression: Higher risk of developing mental health disorders.

Physical Health Issues: Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, weakened immune system and other health problems.

Strategies for Cultivating Calm

While breaking free from the tension cycle can be challenging, there are effective strategies to transform tension into calm. Here are some approaches that have helped me:

  1. Incorporating mindfulness practices into my daily routine has been transformative. Taking a few minutes to focus on my breath and be present in the moment helps reset my mind and body, reducing amygdala activation and promoting prefrontal cortex activity.

  2. Prioritizing tasks and setting realistic daily goals can reduce the overwhelming feeling of having too much to do. Break tasks into smaller, manageable chunks to make them less daunting.

  3. Taking short, frequent breaks throughout the day can help maintain energy levels and reduce tension. Step away from the desk, stretch, or walk to clear your mind and reduce stress hormone levels.

  4. Regular exercise is a powerful stress reliever. Incorporating physical activity into my routine, whether it’s a morning jog or an evening yoga session, helps release built-up tension and promotes overall brain health.

  5. Setting boundaries between work and personal life is crucial. Avoid checking emails after hours and create a designated workspace to separate work from relaxation time mentally.

  6. Talking to colleagues, friends, or a therapist about stress can provide valuable perspective and support. Sometimes, just voicing our concerns can alleviate some of the burden and reduce the stress response.

  7. Creating a pleasant work environment can make a significant difference. Personalize your workspace with items that bring you joy and practice gratitude to shift focus from stress to positivity.

A Personal Journey to Calm

When I think about my journey to calm, a clear image comes into my mind. As a child, my mother sent me to take classes in drawing and painting. Without her or me knowing, she was intuitively cultivating a mindful mind. These art classes allowed me to learn to focus and immerse myself in the present moment. I am convinced that this early exposure to mindfulness has allowed me, despite my emotional and passionate nature, to learn how to access a calm state. It's something I will always be grateful to my mother for.

Transitioning from a state of constant tension to calm is a journey that requires patience, practice, and self-compassion. By implementing these strategies and regularly assessing what works best for you, you can cultivate a more peaceful and productive work life.

It’s important to remember that feeling tense at work is a common experience, and you’re not alone in this struggle. The key is acknowledging the tension, understanding its sources and taking proactive steps to address it. Over time, these efforts can lead to a more balanced and fulfilling work experience.


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  6. Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Little, Brown and Company.
  7. Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. Holt Paperbacks.
  8. Selye, H. (1976). The stress of life. McGraw-Hill.
  9. Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. W. W. Norton & Company.

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