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How to control your emotions when you’re at work

AP Photo/Ben Margot
Simmer down.
Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Strong emotions are inevitable in today’s busy, stressful work world.

Maybe you’ve been so frustrated with a colleague that you exploded with anger. Or perhaps you cried after getting feedback. If you’re anything like the high-achievers I coach, then you may wrangle with fear of not measuring up to the expectations you have of yourself.

Complex feelings like disappointment, panic, or even shame are natural, but that doesn’t make them any less difficult to deal with. Without the right strategies for regulating your emotions, it’s easy to overreact. However, many well-known strategies are unrealistic or impossible to do during the workday. Few people can go for a run or write in a journal during a heated meeting, for example.

Here are four realistic alternatives you can use to control your emotions in the moment, so you can stay calm and composed and respond in way you’ll feel good about.

1. Cool down

When you experience an emotion, your body gears up to fight or flee. Your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive—your heart rate speeds up and your internal temperature rises. It’s why your palms perspire when you’re nervous or your cheeks get flush when you’re embarrassed.

To push back the rising tide of emotion, you have to quell your internal, physiological response. One easy way to do this is to lower your body temperature. Grasp onto a cold glass, melt an ice cube in your mouth, take off a layer of clothing, or move closer to the air conditioner. Better yet, take a time out and head to the bathroom so you can splash water on your face.

Scientifically speaking, this activates the mammalian diving reflex and kicks on your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation.

2. Ground yourself

When overwhelming emotions strike, it’s tempting to lose yourself in wild trains of thought. You might recall every past instance of failure or worry about future outcomes. When this happens, you can use grounding techniques to reorient back to reality and keep yourself firmly rooted in the present.

Simple grounding techniques you can use in the moment include:

  • Clenching and releasing your fist
  • Digging your heels into the floor
  • Relaxing your hips into the corners of your chair
  • Concentrate on the eye color of the person you’re speaking to

Paying attention to concrete, observable sensations and objects around you channels your attention toward what’s true and what you can control, versus the chatter running through your head.

3. Breathe like a Navy SEAL

Navy SEALS know a thing or two about managing emotions under pressure. They use a particular form of regulated breathing to stay alert, focused, and calm. Box breathing, or four-square breathing, is a practice you can use discreetly at your desk or even in the middle of a tense conversations.

Here’s how it works:

  • Breathe in for four seconds.
  • Hold air in your lungs for four seconds.
  • Exhale for four seconds.
  • Hold your breath, lungs emptied, for four seconds.

You can find guided visualizations online to assist you in a box breathing practice if you’re just getting started.

4. Buy yourself time before you respond

You’ve probably experienced regret after spewing words you didn’t mean. You want to avoid overreacting in the future, but how? I tell my clients to buy time for themselves by asking questions.

Start by empathizing and validating the other person’s view, then pose a question to get more information. For example, you might say, “Great question. What’s your sense of the situation?” or “What I’m hearing is that you’re unhappy with the results. What else is factoring into your response?” This gives you space to process your emotional reaction, use the tools above to calm down, and consider how you want to respond.

Fighting your emotions doesn’t work. It will only leave you frustrated and unhappy. Instead, embrace your feelings and manage them appropriately using these simple strategies.

Melody Wilding is a leadership and executive coach who works with sensitive high-achievers. She is also a licensed social worker and professor of human behavior at Hunter College.

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