Most of us have a hard time switching off work, or at least the tension and thoughts of work, at the end of the workday. The mind seems determined not to let go of the day's events and worries. We just can't stop thinking about work.
What keeps the tension going is a side-effect of stress. The stress response is triggered when demands overload your ability to cope with them, switching on a part of the ancient brain that believes there is a threat to your life and limb. As a result, it constricts your brain to the perceived emergency of the moment, causing that loop of worry to spin round and round in one of the telltale byproducts of stress, rumination.
The key to relaxing evenings, less stress, and better focus and positive mood when you go back to work the next day, say researchers, is what's known as psychological detachment. We need to make a mental break from the job and flip the off-switch on work concerns.
That means identifying and disputing the false beliefs that come from stress triggers, reframing thoughts and reactions, and countering the activation of the stress response with the deactivation of rest and refueling, processes I teach in my stress management training, coaching and classes.
It turns out that what we do away from work is critical for well-being, health and even the quality of what we do at work. Researchers at the University of Konstanz and Bowling Green University found that work-related thoughts combined with a lack of recovery strategies after work aggravate emotional exhaustion and prevents the resupply of energetic resources.
As they put it, “High workload, emotional dissonance, and low spatial work-home boundaries are related to poor psychological detachment from work during non-work time.”
Studies show that leisure experiences off the job play a major role in buffering stressors and creating a positive mood state—active and strong— that allows for recovery and keeping negative mood at bay. Research by Williams and Alliger found that mood state, called affect, at home was related to affect state at work.
Job stressors drive psychological attachment to the events of the day that make it harder for our brains and bodies to let go and recover the resources they expended. This sets up a pattern of cumulative fatigue, in which we don’t recoup our resources at night and return to work the next day already behind the energy 8-ball. The more fatigued we get, the more recovery we need.
Just as we need sleep to function the next day, we also need strategies to replace the mental and emotional resources burned up at the office. If they’re not replenished, we go down the track to chronic stress and exhaustion.
One of the things that makes it hard to unwind from the pressures of the day is that the stress response suppresses the play equipment in our brains. It's hard to think about having fun when a part of your brain thinks your life is on the line.
When demands are at their highest and you need relaxation the most, your ancient defense mechanism is working against you, suppressing the play equipment in your brain. You’re not in the mood to do anything non-serious. The way out of the loop is blocked by what’s known as negative affect. Gloom, anger, and pessimism restrict options to stewing and rumination.
Rumination is one of the leading drivers of stress, pessimism, and depression. It’s the constant replay of a stressful event, or rather the story we tell ourselves about that event, that entrenches a false belief and makes us think the danger is real. Rumination thrives on self-talk that stress sets off--a disorted false belief that by repeated obsessing about it appears real. The counter to that is physical action and relaxation experiences that shut off the broken record and the demands of the workday.
A wide variety of relaxation techniques can take thoughts off the stressful events of the day. Researchers have found that techniques from progressive relaxation, to experiences in nature, to aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, and listening to music can shift the focus of attention.
The evocative power of music is particularly effective in changing the emotional dynamic. The negative mood that locks us in our bunkers is ephemeral. Subject it to some empowering or beautiful music, and you change the emotional temperature.
One of the most effective ways to squelch self-talk and make the break from the workday is through active leisure experiences, the fun track to work-life balance. As a study led by Princeton’s Alan Krueger found, we are at our happiest when we are involved in engaging leisure experiences.
Absorbing experiences off the career track allow you to demonstrate competence in a world of your own making, no matter what happens at the office. Everything isn’t riding on every approval and perfect outcome in the workday.
Research by Sonnentag and Ernst shows that “people who experience mastery in their off-hours generally report better well-being and life satisfaction.” Sports and hobbies are the places to look for mastery experiences.
Experiences make us happier than material things, and they usually connect us with others, which satisfies a core psychological need, connection with others. Having a fun activity to do every week or a couple of times a week is a powerful counter to negative affect.
So when you get home from work, do something different. Don’t fall for the usual mood. Too exhausted, too upset, etc. Rally and jump in to a new leisure activity or relaxation process. It puts you in charge of your mood, not the workday—and doing the living you are making for yourself.