Your boss gives you harsh news— you’re being taken off that huge team or a project you were planning to leverage in a future salary negotiation. Or national politics come up, leaving everyone involved in the discussion wishing they never went there in the first place.
Similar instances can send your levels of cortisol skyrocketing.
But all you have to do is use one easy way to change your mindset.
Here it is: when stress starts to make your blood boil, remember one positive time in your life. Visualize everything about that one happy memory — the weather outside, the scent, how you felt — and you will instantly feel better.
But a study recently published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour from Rutgers University found that “across both studies, recalling positive, but not neutral, memories resulted in a dampened cortisol rise and reduced negative affect. Further, individuals with greater self-reported resiliency showed enhanced mood, despite stress exposure.”
Thinking about good memories could be the remedy you need— especially when you feel ready to give up at work.
Thinking about better days
The research was made up of two studies— the first had 134 participants, and the second had 43.
The 134 participants were videotaped with their hands in icy water (to mimic a stressful situation), and afterward, had to recall positive or neutral life events for 14 seconds (i.e., going to Disneyland or packing luggage to go somewhere).
The researchers found that people who remembered the good times felt better — meaning they had lower cortisol levels — than those who thought of neutral things.
The researchers went further in the next study by stressing participants out in the same way, then using imaging technology to scan participants’ brains while remembering good or neutral memories.
A write-up in The British Psychological Society Research Digest by Emma Young points out that this technique might not work for everyone. It doesn’t, for instance, overcome diagnosed depression.
“This work was on healthy adults. People with depression usually find it hard to recall positive memories, so this technique may not work well for them. And it’s not clear yet whether any technique that makes you feel positive emotions would be effective or if there’s something special about reminiscing,“ Young wrote.
Other ways to manage your emotions on the worst day
There are other ways to settle your mind after a rough day at work.
Breathe away the stress
Take 10 seconds to breathe in and out deeply. When we’re stressed, we tend to breathe shallowly and struggle for air, which increases our sense of panic. Instead, take one deep breath after another. This calms you, places you in the present, and is the first step in most meditations.
Know when to take a break
Your mind and body need breaks; if you keep driving yourself non-stop, you’ll burn out and your work will be lower in quality.
Recent studies found that scheduled breaks are crucial to productivity, but you must take them. It’s simple: Set a timer, work until break time, and then resume afterward. The key is not to work through breaks or move them around when you feel you’re in a groove. Stop when the clock tells you to, and you’ll keep your energy fresh.
The best break-to-work ratio: 52 minutes of work, with a 17-minute break, according to one study.
Choose your bosses carefully
The conventional wisdom in management theory is that people don’t leave jobs; they leave bosses. There’s an element of truth to that.
The single best thing you can do for a positive outlook and less stress is to work with positive people: compassionate bosses who emphasize teamwork. Whether you’re already in a job or looking for one, take a very close look at your bosses and the team dynamic and choose who you’d like to work with next.
Christina Boedker, a professor at UNSW Business School in Australia, studied compassionate leadership. She found that character of leaders really does make a difference on the productivity of team members.
Her research reportedly found that “the single greatest influence on profitability and productivity within an organisation, according to the research project – which to date has taken in data from more than 5600 people in 77 organisations – is the ability of leaders to spend more time and effort developing and recognising their people, welcoming feedback, including criticism, and fostering co-operation among staff.”
Google also found that the key predictor for successful teams was the ability of leaders and colleagues to be nice to one another. The reason: Niceness and respect creates “psychological safety,” in which team members feel free to experiment and contribute ideas without losing status in the team.
The next time you’re searching for a job, reach out to any connections you might have at the company to see if the leaders are people you feel like you can learn from effectively. If you can, you’ll probably have fewer stressful days, even if you have to work harder.