What to do when someone is freaking out
Emotions are a normal part of daily experience and work takes up a big chunk of your life, so… you’ll probably face some intense emotions occasionally during your work day. And since 2020 has been a year of upheaval (and it’s not over yet!), there’s plenty of fodder. You may have had people blow up in your face, break down in tears, or fall to pieces from anxiety. It can derail productivity and leave you feeling drained.
Sometimes, the reaction blindsides you. You just don’t get it. Why such a dramatic response to such a small thing?
Other times, especially if you’re a “highly sensitive person” with a great capacity for empathy, you don’t just notice the outburst but you feel it in your own body. This can be exhausting if you’re surrounded by intense people (or just going through an intense year, like, uh, this one).
Thankfully, most people will calm down within a few minutes, especially if you do one or more of the following things:
Give space. Let people have their reaction. Don’t try to fix or advise. Don’t try to reason them out of their feelings. If the person is behaving disrespectfully, tell them to stop. But let them be angry or sad or embarrassed or worried for a few minutes.
Listen. You don’t have to say anything. Just be present. Stay curious. This will keep you from making their reaction about you—because even if it’s aimed at you, it’s NOT about you. Hold space for them and their feelings.
Maintain boundaries. Also hold space for yourself. The other person’s emotional reaction is their own; you don’t have to shoulder it. Stay present to your own body and your own emotional reactions. It may not be helpful to express your thoughts and feelings, but do acknowledge them to yourself.
Practice empathy. Connect with the other person’s underlying feeling. You don’t have to relate to the experience. You may not understand it at all! Or your emotional response in the same situation might be wildly different. But you’re familiar with the feeling. You’ve been furious before. Or brokenhearted. Or terrified. Or humiliated. You don’t have to join in feeling that way, but you can acknowledge that you get it.
Breathe. Breathing helps you stay calm so you can create a safe presence and avoid escalation. It will also help the other person calm down more quickly, since breathing patterns are contagious. Pay attention to that transition. When you start to hear them take a deep breath or two, that’s a good sign that they’re calming down and ready to move on.
It usually just takes a few minutes for an emotional outburst to expend itself. At that point you can discuss solutions and next steps. If, after several minutes, the person isn’t calming down, here are some things to check for:
Are you fueling the fire? Ignoring the emotion, downplaying or trying to soften it, judging or shaming the person for it, or giving unsolicited advice before the person has calmed down will usually inflame the emotion, not resolve it.
Is it emotional blackmail? Some people use emotional outbursts to manipulate others. Fury can intimidate. Tears can create guilt trips. If you’re dealing with a toxic person who uses their emotions tactically, none of these tips will work. Practice good boundaries and self-care. Get support, if you need it.
Is it more than a fleeting feeling? For most everyday scenarios, these tips are all you’ll need. But some situations are too momentous to get past in a few minutes or even a few days. You may need to postpone your discussion and, if appropriate, suggest counseling. Breathing and listening and giving space will still help, but they may not be enough.
One last tip: deal with your own emotional response once you get a chance. Depending on the issue, the person, the emotion, and your own sensitivity, it may not impact you much at all. It could be like water off a duck’s back. But if not, be sure to take a moment to get your own emotional reaction out of your head and your body.
If you’ve been able to sail through this year without getting emotionally dumped on, I congratulate you! If not, you’re in good company. Practice these tips when emotions are running high in order to support your colleagues (or friends or family), move on, and protect your own mental health.