How to Manage an Emotional Breakdown at Work

How to Manage an Emotional Breakdown at Work
Photo: Vladeep, Shutterstock

We all have our bad days at work. When you do, it can be all too easy for our emotions to get out of control, whether that means crying at your desk over bad news or lashing out at a colleague in anger. If you find yourself melting down at work, there are coping strategies that can help temper your emotions, mitigate any damage your outburst may have caused, and help prevent the next one.

“Emotional regulation is the primary strategy that you want to move toward,” said Melody Wilding, an executive coach who specialises in working with highly sensitive people. “Emotional regulation means that you have more control and influence over how you experience your emotions.”

Process — don’t bottle up — your emotions

If you find yourself melting down, the most important thing to do is to find a productive outlet to process your emotions — not just to push them down or pretend they aren’t there. As Wilding says, suppressing our emotions is a little bit like trying to hold a beach ball under water. Although you can manage for a little while, the minute you stop, the beach ball will come flying up out of the water, often hitting you (or someone around you) in the process.

“Emotions are the same way,” Wilding said. “To get through a meltdown, you have to actually process your emotions.” Helpful strategies for processing your emotions can include stepping away from work to go for a walk, listen to some music, or spend a few minutes journaling.

Create some distance

If you find your emotions getting out of control, it’s best to create a little distance and to give yourself the time and space to process. That distance can be literal: Go for a walk, reschedule any meetings to a later time, or log off Zoom/Slack for a few hours. “Take a time out,” Wilding advised.

When it comes to emotional distance, Wilding suggests practicing what she calls psychological self-distancing, where you try and see the situation from an outside perspective. One way to do this is to name your inner critic, and to try and imagine what you might say if it was a friend going through this situation. “That little bit of distance can be helpful for pulling you out,” Wilding said.

You need a strategy for damage control

If you’ve already had a meltdown at work, there are ways to recover from the fallout. As research shows, if workers frame their distress as being about their passion and commitment for work, they are viewed more favourably.

As Wilding suggests, it’s good to follow up after the fact, saying something along the lines of, “I realise I got a little emotional, that’s because I really care about the quality of the work we do.”

If you can contextualize the meltdown as being about your passion for the work, and your desire for yourself and your team or company to succeed, it can help minimise the damage.

Identify your triggers

To prevent future workplace meltdowns, it’s important to identify the situations are especially stressful for you, and to actively work to both minimise and to better handle them when they do pop up. This could be a fear of public presentations, an inability to handle criticism, or a co-worker who has a knack for getting under your skin. “Knowing your triggers is so crucial,” Wilding said.

Once you’ve identified these triggers, then it’s important to actively work on managing your reactions to them. This includes developing coping techniques, whether that’s going for a short walk before a stressful situation, recruiting a friend to talk it through with, or setting firmer boundaries with your coworkers.

One framework that Wilding finds useful to be aware of is “HALT,” which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These four stressors can make it much harder to regulate your emotions, so on tough days, it’s good to do periodic self-evaluations. If you are feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired, that’s a signal that you need to work on your physical and emotional wellbeing before you can expect yourself to handle a stressful situation. Take a break, grab a bite, talk to a friend. You’ll get through this.

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