Four tactics to stop emotions taking over at work

4 Minute Read

Every decision we make in life requires emotion. Studies by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio have shown that people with damage to the emotion-generating section of the brain – but with their reasoning powers intact – are unable to arrive at any decision, however small. This is comforting to the vast majority who struggle to maintain detachment when grappling with tough dilemmas at work. But although we need our emotions to power our judgment, they can also critically derail it.

The human brain is still programmed to switch into fight-or-flight mode as a response to intense stress. Your heartbeat and breathing accelerate, digestion slows and you experience a huge dump of adrenalin. Back in the cave, this red alert reaction was designed to help deal with life-threatening situations. In today's cave – the workplace – it's a recipe for irrational decisions made in the heat of an emotional flood.

With general stress levels at an all-time high (in Lifeline Australia’s last National Stress Poll, 90% of the population declared themselves stressed), workplace meltdowns are all too frequent because our fuses are shorter. At best, losing your cool can cause a lapse in performance. At worst, it can cost you your job.

People management expert and author Karen Gately, who works with individuals and teams to manage workplace and personal stress, says its crucial to have a strategy to deal with these situations. Here's what she recommends for taking the heat out of a red alert response.

Be prepared

To beat stress, you need to catch it early, says Gately. “Understand your own triggers. Know what brings out the best and worst in you, so you can try to pre-empt stressful situations.”

Next, she says, learn to pick the signs. “Pay attention to how you’re thinking, feeling and behaving. Learn to read the signals that you’re allowing things to get on top of you. Listen to the telltale conversations in your mind – thoughts such as: ‘I don’t want to be here,’ or ‘I don’t feel good’.”

Take time out

When you feel stress levels building to explosion levels, take a break from the situation. “Go for a walk if possible, spend a few minutes clearing your mind in a breakout room or have a brief chat to a colleague,” says Gately. “Physical movement, fresh air, sunshine and laughter are just some of the ways you can quickly reduce stressful thoughts and feelings before they take hold.”

When stress suddenly intensifies, it can be hard to stay calm, says Gately. “In a scenario when your buttons are pressed and you’re flooded with stress, tell yourself: ‘OK, I’m there. Chances are I’m not going to be objective or calm right now. I need time out.’”

Remember to breathe

“A common reaction to stress is to hold your breath," says Gately. "But that deprives your brain of oxygen and makes it harder to handle the situation.” Take steady, deep breaths from your belly, inhaling to the count of seven and exhaling to the count of 11.

Choose your thoughts

Gately recommends we observe those fight-or-flight thoughts – then choose different ones. “We can choose not to buy into the drama, but instead to reflect on it,” she says.

“The way we think influences the way we feel and in turn, the stress we carry. Choose to see your circumstances in a positive light and avoid the draining impact that pessimistic thinking can have.”