It happens to the best of us. Things go off the rails at work, you witness someone on your team verbally explode because something isn’t working out in their favor, or after too much frustration, you have a meltdown of your own.
But before things go too far, here’s how to stay calm on days like these.
Don’t lose it
Losing your temper could wreck your career. You risk losing the standing you’ve attained so far: It tells your managers that you can’t be trusted with responsibility, and it tells your peers that you don’t have a handle on your own life. Plus, freaking out could make everything worse— not only for you, but also for your coworkers. When there’s a crisis, everyone needs to focus on the underlying problem and row in the same direction to fix it — not cater to your mood.
The hardest consequence: Even if you’re calm 99% of the time, people will always remember your one moment of losing control and it will erase most of your goodwill with them. The person yelling in the office may make some people afraid, but it will also always earn a measure of contempt.
So when you get wound up, acknowledge your emotion to yourself — “I am upset right now, and I have every right to be” — to get it out of the way and stop struggling with yourself. Then step back and think of your future, not just the present moment.
One key thing that many wise people teach students of meditation: if you’re reacting to everything, you will get stuck in your life because you can’t handle moving forward. If a simple challenge brings you to the brink of crying and fury, how do you plan to handle the larger challenges that go along with success? Start training yourself to meet challenges with aplomb instead of a tornado of emotion, and soon you’ll be moving forward to bigger and better opportunities.
Don’t try to take on others’ emotions
Emotions are as viral as illnesses. When we sit next to a happy person, we’re happy. When we sit next to a drama queen, we’re tossed around in the chaos too. Handling our own emotions in addition to other people’s is too much of a heavy lift for most people, especially at work.
While showing empathy and putting yourself in their shoes can help you put things into perspective and understand another point of view, assuming someone else’s emotional burden can hurt your productivity. It can be hard to set those boundaries, but it’s necessary: we absorb each other’s feelings.
Very often, when someone is upset about a work matter, there can be a tendency to want to cater to their distress. The best advice: don’t try to intervene if someone is lashing out while you’re around. It’s not your responsibility to fix someone else’s emotional state — and in fact, it can do harm. Don’t shrink from their anger, or cater to their ups and downs. If you’re in the same workplace, it means they’re just like you: grown adults who should be trusted to manage their own emotions and be in charge of their own lives.
Judith Orloff, M.D., provides strategies for getting away from others’ bad emotions from her book, Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life, in a HuffPost article.
“First, ask yourself: Is the feeling mine or someone else’s? It could be both. If the emotion such as fear or anger is yours, gently confront what’s causing it on your own or with professional help. If not, try to pinpoint the obvious generator. For instance, if you’ve just watched a comedy, yet you came home from the movie theater feeling blue, you may have incorporated the depression of the people sitting beside you; in close proximity, ‘energy fields’ overlap. The same is true with going to a mall or packed concert,” Orloff writes.
Remember, it’s all in how you communicate
When you’re angry, there can be a tendency to be sarcastic for some people, or passive-aggressive for others. Be aware of the intentions and emotions you’re directing at other people. Not everyone is — or should be — understanding or accepting of anger, ranting, or silence. You don’t want to burn any bridges, especially if you don’t know the colleague well and they could carry reports of your behavior through the company.
Jacqueline Whitmore writes about the thinking through what you have to say before communicating in an Entrepreneur article.
“Once something comes out of your mouth, you can’t take it back. Saying hurtful or nasty things can be risky or dangerous to your professional reputation. It can also shatter your credibility. Watch what you say, how you say it, and where you say it. It’s best to confront someone in private, whenever possible,” Whitmore writes.
The obvious implications: don’t send flame emails, nasty messages on Slack or other internal messaging programs, or confront someone publicly where they may be humiliated. It will make you look terrible. If someone confronts you that way, just acknowledge what’s happening: “I see you’re angry right now, so it’s probably not the best time to address things. I’m heading out. Why don’t we take this up tomorrow and talk through our concerns?” Then walk away. When you stay in the presence of bad behavior, it’s can be taken as encouragement for it.
Focus on your breathing
Mindfulness meditation isn’t just about sitting in a room with your eyes closed. It can also take the form of walking or nearly any other activity. The only requirements are being present to your surrounding, calm breathing, and focus.
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley provides advice on mindful breathing.
“Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Otherwise, simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s OK. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath…” the site says.
Remove yourself from the situation
If you’re too heated, nothing good will happen. If you’re around someone who’s heated, it’s the same.
Get away from the irritation as soon as you can (and do some of that breathing). Stepping outside and clearing your head on a walk, or just doing a lap around another floor, can help take your mind off things and get your muscles moving again. To calm down quickly, use this easy trick: just think of the place where you’re happiest, and picture what that feels like. It will put you in a different frame of mind. You’ll be best when you’re thinking clearly and not clouded by adrenaline.
Think about what you can control
The bottom line is that we get distressed when we are trying to control things we can’t. Try not to waste too much of your precious time and energy worrying about things that are out of your hands. You don’t have to throw yourself in front of every work crisis with the idea of stopping it, or martyr yourself to a cause. Again, trust other people to do their part, and accept that they may do things differently than you do. The sooner you let go of what you can’t control, the sooner you can move forward, and get focused again.