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emotional stress at work

Emotions at Work: 5 Ways to Deal and Still Get Work Done

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The average human will reportedly spend more than 90,000 hours of their life at work — more than any other activity outside of sleeping. It goes without saying that you will encounter days, and even extended periods of time, when the actual act of doing your work is hard to reconcile with the other things occupying your brain. Put simply: Sometimes work is not the most important thing.

When I was 25 and just beginning to carve out my career, my family was hit with a wave of worst case scenarios: first, my baby sister was diagnosed with leukemia. Then, ten months later, my mom was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a terminal disease so rare it’s been featured on House four separate times.

Over the span of two years, I endured a survival course of coping-at-work (including a three-month leave of absence to care for my mother at the end of her life). Unsurprisingly, I learned more during that period about how to be a person — at work and in life — than I have cumulatively in all of the years before or since.

Regardless of the magnitude of your emotional storm — whether you’re going through a breakup, reeling from recent world events, or grieving the loss of a loved one — below are a few things that helped me be a whole and (mostly) functional person at work, even during incredibly trying times. Some of them are obvious, but worth repeating.

Be ruthlessly kind to yourself.

Self care is one of the first things that flies out the window in times of severe stress. Correct this immediately, because no one else will do it for you. Unsure of where to start, or even what the term ‘self-care’ really means? Here’s a handy playlist of TED talks about the importance of self-care. If you do just one thing every day, repeat this mantra: “I am doing my best. I myself am enough.” Because you are, on both counts.

Sound the alarm to friends and family.

Everyone in your inner circle wants to be of use to you. This is an important part of friendship. While many are inclined to endure hardships alone in a feat of martyrdom, don’t do that. It’s totally up to you how public you want to be about what you’re going through, but in whatever way you are most comfortable, reach out to your closest friends and give them a heads up that you need them. After some strong initial reticence to share my hard things with other people, I was very quickly gobsmacked by just how willing even peripheral friends were to jump in and help me. I am continually surprised by how much everyone is carrying on a daily basis. Don’t underestimate the power of being vulnerable.

Talk to your manager.

Also at the very, very least: Be upfront with the person who manages you about the many things you yourself are managing emotionally. This doesn’t mean immediately walk into their office and lose your sh&t — instead, put some time on their calendar, or send them an email briefly filling them in on the situation, and asking for a time to talk further. Tell them what you are carrying, and ask for their help distributing the load. Even if your manager can’t take things off your plate, he or she can help you prioritize what’s on your plate and manage your own — and your employer’s — expectations about what you can get done and when.

Make a list of things that make you feel better.

What do you do when you need to soothe yourself? What do you do to de-stress? Make a list of everything that has ever made you feel better, including the wild & crazy things (like laying on a beach in Bali). Then move the immediately accessible ones to the top. Pick three to implement THIS WEEK. To get you started, here’s my list of things I try to do every week in the name of self-care: walk to and from work, roast a chicken, spend at least two evenings not socializing/out and about, read poetry, go to my favorite used bookstore, talk to my dad and sister and brother, walk up as many hills as I can, call someone I miss, listen to podcasts (I highly recommend 10% Happier).

Take action (however small or big) every day.

Taking action is a key part of moving through grief or turmoil. Stasis will only amplify your frustration and magnify your sadness. Plus, per a 2013 Harvard Business School study by Francesco Gino and Michael L. Norton, “rituals” have been shown to instill emotional resilience in times of grieving. What are rituals, exactly? The study, published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, discovered an interesting behavior: “Rituals appear to be defined by purposeful behaviors designed to achieve some desired outcome and that the specific behaviors that constitute those rituals are less important than performing some form of ritualistic behavior.” TL;DR: It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you do something you believe will make you feel better.