Early Monday morning. You are miles deep in the warmth of perfectly plush pillows and enveloping, though slightly twisted sheets. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. Why did you pick that obnoxious alarm tone anyways? Immediately your teeth grit and toes curl. Perhaps your stomach churns. Time for work! Even a beloved career can occasionally be hard to drag yourself out of bed for. So how do you shake off the weekend blues on these early Monday mornings? Moreover, how do you remain focused throughout the week when various life and office events seem to claw and nag? Promotion-worthy office meetings. Spilled coffee. Audits. Snagged seam. Scary traffic. Car bills. Employee reviews. Tax season. You did not get the last donut and forgot your lunch. Faulty, buzzing lights. For some, overwhelming emotion can be a daily struggle, while others have found a bit more day-to-day Zen. Regardless of your current situation, it is important to have resources readily available in your office because stressful events will occur. Experts across many cultures, scientific fields, and lifestyle practices including psychology, naturopathic medicine, minimalism, and Feng Shui agree: engaging all five senses is key.
Think of your senses as coping mechanisms; “In psychology, coping means to invest [our] own conscious effort, to solve personal and interpersonal problems, in order to try to master, minimize or tolerate stress and conflict.” When we purposefully use the senses, we work to gain awareness of external bombardments and then seek internal resolution in response. For some people, one sense may seem more naturally developed over another, while others may not experience certain senses at all. However, experts have completed numerous studies demonstrating that regardless of sensory variation and experience, curating senses simultaneously is a crucial medium in which to process information and ultimately calm yourself.
So how can you set up your office space to not only be a functional, pragmatic area, but also a sensorial and liberating retreat? This task is a lot easier than you might think!
Engage All Five Senses
What we see can largely influence our emotional state. Needing to shuffle documents, office supplies, and even furniture to simply begin your day, will cause productivity to immediately decrease, and stress to conversely rise. Simply put, a clutter-free work space matters. All your tools should be readily available, but out of sight until you need them. Staring at ragged tape, bulky hole punches, loose paper clips and bent paperwork adds a literal layer of stuff you have to get through before beginning important work. If you find yourself in this situation, take some time to organize your space. This may take a week or two, and require coming in a bit early or staying late but is worth the effort.
This process takes time because true organization does not suggest taking all items and putting them into newly formed, straightened piles. Rather, try looking at each item and deciding if you need it if it has a place, and how often you will need access to it. If something is not necessary, donate to a colleague, throw away, or repurpose elsewhere. At the end of this process, your office goods should have their place and stay there. Once this larger cleanup task is complete, reserve the last 10 minutes of your day to clear away any accumulated clutter. The next morning when you walk in, get a jump on important tasks instead of jumping over trash!
A clean, organized space is not just limited to office supplies, however. Decorations can make or break a desk as much as a pencil sharpener. So, what hue inspires you? Spots or stripes? Quotes or photos? Choose colors, designs, and imagery that makes you feel excited. Create a space that feels inviting, livable and productive. Be sure that as you select decorations, to maintain the mentality that each item should have its place so as to avoid new types of clutter. Not an interior designer? That is okay! Plenty of websites and magazines show an array of design styles. Purouse some of these and see what stands out!
Generally recommended color choices most often include muted shades of blue, pink, violet, green and gray. They add vibrancy to a space without unnecessary distraction. This may be especially important if you are away from a window with natural lighting, as whites and tans often feel too clinical. To further the environmental feel, consider color combinations found in nature, such as the greens and purples of an eggplant. These colors can be brought in through paint; posters and photographs; figurines; and computer accessories such as keyboard covers, mouse and mouse pads.
Moreover, what about the shapes of the items you choose? Most offices are boxy, as are our electronic devices. Yet, studies have shown that curved and rounded patterns are more cognitively pleasing to us. So as you search for a font to type up your favorite quote, or a classic painting to hang, think about shape and form.
Consider bringing the outside, in. Extensive scientific research proves that access to nature is critical to our health. For one, we tend to be less engaged with electronics when surrounded by trees. Can’t plant a forest in your cubicle? Even having just one succulent may provide a sense of natural amenity. Furthermore, soil contains Mycobacterium vaccae, which is a harmless bacteria that increases the release of serotonin. For your brain, this means better control of cognition and mood. These bacteria have also been found to decrease immune system inflammation. Moreover, more commonly known, but not always subscribed, is the practice of keeping plants to improve oxygen. While oxygen is all around us, what is released by plants is more negative ion-rich than what would be found without plants. Negative ion-rich air increases your brain waves; in other words, it can help you think more clearly and therefore calmly. Additionally, many plants purify the air, which leads to a better smell.
Take a deep breath in through your nose. Imagine white and blue Van Gogh-esque swirls of air flooding your lungs. Allow your stomach to inflate. Hold: 1, 2, 3. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth. Let your stomach deflate. What do you want to smell when you take this deep breath? While indoor air might smell clean, chances are it is not refreshing.
For many people, the sense of smell is first to take over when emotions become heightened. Sometimes stress will even cause our mind to imagine a dangerous or foul odor. By introducing familiar and comforting scents, you can take advantage of and help direct the nose’s innate ability. Aromatherapy is an ancient practice that causes measurable responses to sensory and nervous systems. Lavender is known to relax; citrus smells such as blood orange or lemon boost energy levels, and peppermint and corn mint can lower cortisol levels. Scents can be used individually or combined to purify a space. Many people will use essential oils, either in a diffuser or through topical application. You could also bring in fresh floral and citrus cuttings. If you have a safe and clear space, burning incense may be an option.
Sometimes the music from a movie is more memorable than the screenplay itself. Shrieking horror, dramatic orchestral pieces, and heart pounding raps tell a story as much as any dialogue or scene. Of course, sounds occur outside of the movies, and while it is very rarely controllable (think loud, partying upstairs neighbor, honking sirens, or the classic ding of “you have got mail”) there are some ways in which we can introduce more productive sound. In fact, music is capable of stimulating the areas of the brain in charge of emotions. But not all music is created equal for stress reduction. For instance, classical music used during studying increases test scores, while other genres have been found to heighten the heart rate to potentially dangerous levels.
Whether conscious or not of a sound, your brain is responding to and processing what it hears. So when your office is filled with incessant chatter, shrill phone rings, and clicking keyboards, your stress level and productivity may be affected. Allowing yourself means to soothe these extraneous sounds may be useful for cortisol reduction and lowered heart rates.<
If you are not able to play music the length of a Beethoven Symphony or Tchaikovsky ballet, perhaps consider other sound devices such as bells and chimes, a small gong, or a singing bowl to create peaceful sounds for a shortened period of time.
Touch is the first sense to develop in the womb. Various pressures have a direct correlation to our emotional state. Unfortunately, not many of us have access to a spa while at work, but that does not mean you cannot provide your own quick massage. Typically stress is “carried” in the upper-back and neck. Gently massaging this area in rhythmic circles with your hands or an electronic massager can help release tension. Even just five minutes has noticeable effects. Another area where stress physically manifests is in the temples. Using your first two fingers, massage the area in between your eyes and hairline, above the ears, again in rhythmic circles to help release tension. No time for a massage but still have tension? Warmth is also something that can help relax muscles. You can purchase or make your own flaxseed wrap, which will not only feel great to hold but retains heat for an extended time with no foul odors.
Sometimes we need to exert pressure not on our own bodies, but on an object. Stress balls are a very common object found in office supplies, work conventions, and the like. However, don’t set aside the fun of Play-doh or Silly Putty. These childhood substances can certainly be amusing to mold and squeeze!
The touch sense is also greatly impacted by texture. Smooth and soft textures provide a nice reprieve from the cold, metal and plastics that surround us in an office setting. There is a range of office supplies including suede chair covers, gel cushions and rests, or even grass-like squares to run your toes through. Other objects that can bring in texture are sand gardens, worry stones, and stuffed animals.
Have a notorious sweet tooth? Crave the buzz of coffee? In this case, the cliché phrase,“too much of a good thing, is actually a bad thing,” is completely relevant. Chocolate and coffee cause natural reactions in our body which can create a sense of calm or steadiness. But excess amounts and our body will crash due to an imbalance of nutrients. So when you feel stressed out and need a bit of candy to relax, go for it! But eat with purpose. It may be that you just need to taste something sweet, not have an entire meal’s worth of sugar. In fact, there are many types of foods which help manage stress but aren’t loaded with sugars. These include healthy fats such as olive oil, seeds, nuts, and avocado (guacamole anyone?); lean proteins like chicken, eggs, fish, and beans; and complex carbs including whole grains, vegetables, fruits. Pre-plan your meals to include a combination of these items, and make sure you leave little breaks throughout the day to snack and stay energized. Also, don’t forget about your water intake. Whether you have a nice cup of black tea or plain water, small sips throughout the day will help you stay hydrated and focused. And for a last resort, if you do not have time to eat, or simply don’t feel hungry, chew on some gum. Chewing gum is a simple yet repetitive act that helps you stay alert but non-distracted.
Now we cannot always engage all the senses simultaneously. If you are in the middle of a meeting, chewing on a Bazooka just won’t cut it. And depending on your cubicle space, aromas may need to be used cautiously. Also, as stated earlier, not everyone’s senses are affected the same. Therefore, finding stress relief methods that work best for you and your situation may take some time. It will also take practice.
Take some time to see what type of item or activity truly engages you. Love nature photography? Then start there: pick a few images that most excite you and see if that enthusiasm is retained during a long work week. Or perhaps you crave music, but don’t know which genre you will most enjoy throughout the 9-5 working hours . . . try a variety of sounds over a period of time. Is there a certain weekly event that always causes stress? Definitely try out your new “tools” right before or after. Experimentation to find the most effective sensory experiences is important. Soon enough you will learn a certain combination that promotes your best well-being, whether the stress is expected or not. Lastly, enjoy this self-discovery process… finding a de-stress method should not be stressful!