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Emotions at Work: Tips for Self-Intervention

When thinking about intervention, we must acknowledge that once cortisol and adrenaline get into our system, there is often an impact we are not always cognizant of (please read last week’s post about our bodies’ chemical reactions to strong emotions.)We can’t stop ourselves from being triggered, but we can manage it once it happens. Below there are some intervention tips to help us be more aware of escalation arising from unpleasant emotions and how to navigate them.

Where to Intervene

Intervention Tip No. 1: Know Your Physiology

The first opportunity to intervene is when we start feeling changes in our physiology. For instance, when I start to get stressed or triggered, my heart starts beating faster and my jaw starts to clench. For you, it may be something else. Start to notice your tendencies. They will likely have something to do with your muscular and vascular systems. Pay attention to your heart, your mind, your movement (jittery energy, for example) or changes in your breathing. All these systems can change when you are triggered. Knowing how your body responds to stress is essential for being able to recognize that you may be on your way to having decreased access to your prefrontal cortex. Know your responses and know your triggers in advance so you can better recognize it when and how to intervene before you do or say something that is rash or unprofessional.

Intervention Tip No. 2: Take a Break and Breathe

After you notice you are triggered and your emotions are starting to escalate, it can be a good idea to take a break from your work or interactions with others. When you are triggered, you are more likely to make the situation worse by gossiping, snapping at others or undermining the work of your colleagues. Even if it is just for five minutes, take a break and breathe. Oxygen is one of the quickest ways to move cortisol out of our systems. I am sure you have all heard the adage “Take 10 deep breaths.” It works! Or at least can help connect your mind back to your body.

Intervention Tip No. 3: Humanize the Other Party

If there are other people involved (disclaimer: not all unpleasant emotions have to do with other people) and even if you feel like the other person is being unreasonable or even hurtful in the situation, try to humanize them. This is not easy, because they often represent to us a violation or barrier to getting our needs met. However, if you can try to separate them from the situation and focus on what being a person is like for them, it can promote your own de-escalation.

Some questions you might ask yourself:

  • What needs do they have?
  • Do they have family at home waiting for them after work?
  • What pressures might they be under in this situation?
  • What insecurities, fears or dreams do they have as a person?

These questions will help remind you that just because you are in a difficult situation with someone else doesn’t mean they aren’t a human being, too. This is a practice of empathy or compassion that may introduce a little bit of oxytocin into your system, which can serve as a quickening agent to reduce your cortisol levels. You don’t have to agree with the other people involved and you certainly don’t have to roll over and compromise your needs, but simply humanizing them can help clear your mind and prepare for effective future communications with them. As a bonus, this may also help you better understand what is important to others, which can help you brainstorm creative solutions!

Remember, emotions in the workplace are normal and simply having emotions are not unprofessional. It is how we manage and use our emotions that determines our level of professionalism in the workplace with regard to emotions. Practice noticing your physical responses to feeling unpleasant emotions and start to take breaks to breathe and practice humanizing other people involved to reconnect the rational part of your brain to your body.

Feel free to reach out if you have your own unique challenges with navigating emotions in the workplace and tune in next week as we explore navigating other people’s emotions in the workplace.

Luke Wiesner is the UC Merced Conflict Resolution Coach , a private resource for staff members who are interested in having a partner to support workplace challenges or conflicts. This service is voluntary, and you can partner with the coach by yourself or with fellow university employees.