The other day I was on video conference call as I felt my face begin to flush. My coworkers were moving through the agenda fast, and I was incredibly frustrated. In addition to managing a private mental health counseling practice as a licensed therapist, I also work as a digital organizer in progressive movement spaces. The recent political shifts after Trump’s election have meant that much of the daily organizing duties include facing insurmountable attacks on vulnerable people. Conference calls to plan digital campaigns are often laced with details of facing vile circumstances and barrages of attacks from our opposition.
I pressed myself into my chair as my laptop seemed to grow unusually heavy in my lap. I could feel my body spiraling into that familiar panic zone. Despite the smiles and nods to the conference call speaker, I could feel tears stinging my eyes as I struggled to remain calm. I was on the verge of a certified, work-induced meltdown. The call felt like it lasted a lifetime, and as soon as I said my goodbyes to the team, I closed my laptop, stood up, and let out some sort of guttural growl/yell combination so loud that my rat terrier, Bruce, jumped from his bed and sprinted upstairs for safety.
Workplace anxiety—often a byproduct of less than ideal workplace environments—is well documented. I feel intense stress whether I’m wearing the therapist or the organizer hat—consider what it’s like to attend to the mental health needs of clients and develop digital social justice strategies. So when the anxiety threatens to propel you into a full-on panic, how does one cope?
If the anxiety you're experiencing in the workplace is already at an 8, 9, or 10 out of 10 in terms of the intensity of your distress, the first thing to do is to bring those emotions way down, says Ursula Whiteside, a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and co-developer of NowMattersNow, an initiative to support those who've experienced suicidal ideation. She explains that, in a way, a brain-on-fire feeling happens right before a full-on breakdown, so you need the equivalent of Stop, Drop, and Roll.
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Since data centers in your brain are all firing at the same time, it’s easy for things to escalate rapidly and for your body to go haywire. “People in that range of distress intensity can't think clearly,” she says. “They have a hard time being present. They can't focus on what is in front of them. It's like a computer that’s on the fritz. And you know, what's the best thing to do when your computer is on the fritz? Restart.” Here’s more on that, plus a few tips from Whiteside and myself on how to combat an impending meltdown at work.
Inhale and exhale with intention.
When things are revving up for a meltdown, the first thing that goes is our breathing. The faster and harder we breathe, the more dysregulated our body becomes, sending signals of distress to our brain. Breathing slowly, deeply, and with intention reverses the alarm bells that are going haywire and sends vital oxygen to our heart and brain. Deep diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to change your brain waves and is the most effective way to stop any overwhelming emotional experience in its tracks.
Ground yourself to try and ease the feeling of a loss of control.
The first thing I did when I began to feel the overwhelming urge to throw my laptop out a window and sprint down the street was to remind myself where I was at physically. I planted my feet firmly on the ground and breathed deeply. This grounding allowed me to slow the anxiety cascade. Whiteside says that many people shut down spiraling thoughts by sleeping, but since you’re working, “splash your face with cold water to disrupt the process and slow your body down.”
Don’t act on your impulses.
Whiteside says that during—or even immediately after—a meltdown is not the time to make important decisions. This includes all decisions from self-harm; everything from letting your boss know where they can go shove their poor management skills or ending a relationship to more intense forms of self-harm like cutting or suicide. Because your brain is recovering from an intense episode of fight or flight, and your adrenaline may be working overtime, you should refrain from decisions that are informed more by your prefrontal cortex. (My prefrontal cortex—or “the animal brain”—is the section of my brain that urged me to let out that guttural scream.)
Don't try to suppress your anxiety.
A better option than pretending like everything is okay is to find a quiet place where you can insulate yourself from too much stimuli. Taking even a few minutes yourself can relieve the pressures of social performance, while your body and brain come back to homeostasis, or stability. If you are already alone, try to employ visualizations of calming and tranquil spaces that bring you comfort and relief.
Meltdowns can get especially tricky when we perceive that everyone knows we are in an anxiety spiral. The thing is, because our brain is going haywire despite what we perceive, we are often the only ones aware—or even hyper vigilant—of what’s happening. “We [only] act strangely when we are at an 8, 9, or 10 in terms of the intensity of your distress,” Whiteside says. That’s when our facial expressions, voice tone, and posture tend to be off. And when we do start acting a bit odd, the feedback we receive from others is usually more about confusion or concern than judgment. Don’t try and force yourself to “act normal.” Rather, simply roll with it and remind yourself through positive self-talk that this moment is short, and it's passing.
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