Losing your cool every now and then is common. But few can afford to do so at work. Finding ways to cope and anticipate losing your temper is important.
It’s natural to feel angry sometimes. But losing your temper at work can have a negative effect on your career and work relationships.
Losing your temper can involve both verbal and physical behaviors, like:
- raising your voice
- insulting others
- storming out
- quitting impulsively
- acting out on physical objects
- using passive-aggressive communication
If you’re living with a mental health condition that may involve anger outbursts, seeking the support of a professional can make all the difference.
If perhaps you’re feeling burned out or are going through a tough time, your temper may be a symptom. But this can be managed too.
Here are a few ways to manage your temper in the workplace:
Recognizing the early signs of a possible temper tantrum at work is key to managing your temper, says Dr. Julia Kogan, a psychologist in Miami.
“Although it might feel as though we go from 0 to 100 when we lose our temper, there often are a series of physical, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive clues that tell us we are starting to escalate,” Kogan says.
These early signs may include:
- Physical: increased heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, muscle tension, and other symptoms of the stress response
- Behavioral: pacing, fidgeting, tapping, and increased volume in your voice
- Emotional: feeling annoyed, frustrated, irritated, or wound up
- Cognitive: negative thinking or cognitive distortions
“As soon as we notice any of the early clues to losing our temper, it’s important to take action to calm the nervous system immediately,” says Kogan. “The single most important anger management strategy is early recognition and action.”
Deep breathing is a powerful self-soothing technique. Once you identify the first signs of possibly losing your temper at work, consider trying to breathe slowly and mindfully.
Taking breaths from your belly versus from your chest activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the stress response), says Kori Hennessy, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“If possible, excuse yourself for a minute to go practice some deep breathing,” Hennessy says. “Notice the tension in your muscles and release it. Relax your shoulders, unclench your jaw, and wiggle your toes.”
When you find you may be losing your cool in the office, try to give yourself some mental space from the situation, says Hennessy.
For example, if you’re in a meeting or conversation with someone, consider slowing the interaction down with some key phrases:
- “That’s interesting. Let me think about that.”
- “Interesting point. Give me a minute to process that.”
- “Let me think about that overnight and get back to you.”
A practice known as thought diffusion can help you look at your thoughts rather than looking at things from thoughts, says Hennessy. In other words, instead of using your thoughts as a filter, look at them so you can change them.
Here’s how thought diffusion works:
- Notice the thought: “I am so angry.”
- Give it some distance: “I am having the thought that I am so angry.”
- Give it some more distance: “I am noticing I am having the thought that I am so angry.”
Next, try to bring your attention to your body again and notice if anything has changed, Hennessy says.
“Giving your thoughts some space and attending to the stress response in your body can give you time to decide on what the logical or appropriate way to handle a situation is,” says Hennessy.
Using your five senses to ground yourself may help you cool down if you feel you’re about to lose your temper.
You may find it helpful to put cold water on your face or hold onto ice cubes until they melt in your hand, says Britt Frank, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in Kansas City and author of the book “The Science of Stuck.”
“There’s a reason we tell people to ‘cool off’ when they’re angry,” says Frank. “The sensation of cold engages the braking system of your brain and can be incredibly useful for preventing unwanted outbursts.”
When losing your cool, consider gravitating toward (or thinking about) people, places, and things that can help your brain access safety, says Frank.
“If your brain is in fight or flight mode, it is unlikely you will be able to use logic and reason in the moment,” she explains. “Once your brain’s panic button turns off, then use logic and reasoning and critical thinking to work your way through the problem.”
This is similar to grounding, but instead of using your five senses, you use your imagination or memories to connect with moments, places, or people that make you feel safe and joyful.
For example, you can take a few minutes to think about the best part of your last vacation or your pet’s face greeting you when you come home.
Emotional intelligence often begins with self-monitoring, which is observing and tracking your thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, says Kogan.
“When we can become more aware of our triggers and our early clues that we are starting to get upset, we build our self-awareness and have increased opportunities to manage in more productive ways. A lot of this work is on the back end,” Kogan says.
Kogan recommends a reflective journaling exercise. Once the anger has passed, try to sit down and dissect what happened to see if you notice any patterns.
- Situation. I felt my boss belittled me in front of others.
- Early behavior clues. Tightness in my chest.
- Early emotional clues. Sadness, betrayal, shock, and irritation.
- Early cognitive clues. I could no longer focus on the presentation.
- My reaction to the situation. I got up and walked out mid-presentation.
“Over time, you build greater emotional intelligence by being more aware of your behaviors, which allows you to respond rather than react,” explains Kogan.
What do you do next when you’ve lost it at work?
Frank recommends her “4 O’s of Amends” to help repair your professional relationships.
- Own what you did. “I let my anger get the best of me, and I lost my temper.”
- Observe how you think it affected the other person. “I imagine you must have felt ________.”
- Outline your plan to avoid this next time. “In the future, I will avoid another outburst by making sure I ____”
- Offer to listen. “Is there anything else about this situation that you’d like me to be aware of?”
If anger is regularly interfering with any area of your life, you may find it helpful to work with a therapist. In some cases, recurrent anger could be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition.
This may include:
- complex trauma
- intermittent explosive disorder (IED)
- personality disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
If you’re concerned about losing your temper at work, there are ways to help prevent this. It may start with exploring the root cause of your anger and identifying its early signs.
Anger is an important emotion. But how you feel and how you act are two different things.
If your anger is causing disruptions in your work life, you may find it helpful to practice self-awareness and grounding exercises. Once the anger has passed, consider building emotional intelligence.