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Maybe you are one of the 15% to 20% of people who register as “highly sensitive,” and you think and feel more deeply than most of the people around you. Or maybe you normally keep your sensitivities in check, but the pandemic is testing your skill with that. Either way, there’s a good chance you’ve noticed your emotions creeping up on you, even when you’re trying to focus on work.

Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker and executive coach specializing in highly sensitive people, says that although emotions in the workplace are typically seen as a weakness, it’s perfectly possible to channel them into a strength. But first you need to learn how to manage them.

At our March 4 workshop on how to not let emotions get in your way at work, Wilding, author of the forthcoming book Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work (Chronicle Prism, May 2021), offered practical tips on what to do when strong emotions threaten to get in your way at work.

For the full video playback, click on the image at the top of this article. Or check out our summary below of the top tips Wilding shared for calming yourself in stressful moments and communicating with colleagues about your sensitivities.

Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method

When emotions are getting the better of you, they can trigger physical responses (flushed cheeks, rapid heart rate, tense shoulders) as well as discouraging or counterproductive thoughts. A simple and inconspicuous “grounding” exercise can quickly get you back on even keel, Wilding says.

One of her favorites is the “5-4-3-2-1” exercise:

  • Select five objects you see around you (a book, a phone, a photograph—anything) and describe them to yourself in detail.
  • Pick four things you can touch or feel (your tongue in mouth or your fingers on a keyboard, for example) and name the sensations, textures, and temperatures you experience.
  • Next do the same for three things you can hear, two things you can smell (or just think of a favorite scent if the air around you is neutral), and one thing you can taste.
  • Take a deep breath, and notice how your physical state has changed.

Box breathing

This is a trick made famous by the US Navy SEALs. Just inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, pause for four seconds, and then repeat.

Splash cool water on your face or suck on an ice cube

These are things that can bring down your internal temperature, calming you from the inside out.

Full body scan

People who are into meditation will tell you about the power of the full body scan, where you tense and release your muscle groups one by one. This exercise can take up to 20 minutes. Wilding proposes a much abbreviated version with similar effects: just clench your hands for five to ten seconds, then let go—and imagine letting go of the emotion as well.

Release writing

Emotions are just energy in your body, Wilding says—and just like other kinds of energy, she notes, they need to be metabolized.

Try a session of “release writing.” Just five minutes of stream-of-consciousness writing can take the edge off of whatever you’re feeling. Don’t judge yourself as you write. Simply note what you’re feeling and why.

“Labeling emotions has an almost immediate effect on their ability to have a grip on you,” Wilding says.

Go out on the balcony

When a situation has you stressed, imagine it as a play or movie unfolding below you as you watch from the balcony. “It’s a metaphor for detaching yourself from the situation,” Wilding says, and it will give you a broader view to contextualize what you’re feeling.

Another exercise Wilding recommends along these lines is to “act like a scientist,” examining your emotions with the curiosity of a researcher.

Apologize … or not

When your emotions boil over at work, resulting perhaps in yelling or crying, don’t compound the awkwardness by retreating in shame, Wilding says. A more productive choice is to own up to what happened, and to offer an apology if that feels appropriate.

Wilding acknowledges that apologizing in the workplace for normal or understandable emotional reactions can be something of a minefield, particularly for women. To that end, she recommends replacing “I’m sorry” with “thank you.” For example, instead of “I’m sorry for venting about that,” try a simple “Thank you for listening.”

In conclusion

Remember to have grace both for yourself and others. The existential dread and isolation of the pandemic makes it easier for anyone to “get stuck in your own head and go down those mental rabbit holes,” while dealing with colleagues remotely makes it harder to suss out nuance in our communications with people, Wilding says.

Remember, too, that you are not a prisoner to your feelings. As Wilding says, “the emotional rollercoaster you feel you’ve been riding is not one you have to stay on.”