5 Tips for coping with emotional overwhelm at work or school

We aren’t robots. We’re human. We have a wide range of emotions, all valid and normal. From happy to sad, angry to grateful, each and every one of our emotions is to be treasured, learned from, and used for our growth.

Since I started The STEM Thrive Guides, I have heard too often from people who feel emotionally overwhelmed because of personal and professional circumstances and issues. They feel frantic, searching for some quick-fix way to overcome their emotions of grief, anger, or fear, especially since their school or workplace environment views these emotions as weakness or problematic.

The truth is, in a healthy work environment all the emotions we feel should be seen as normal, and not looked upon badly by our colleagues, coworkers, bosses, etc.

A few months ago, my coworker came into work despite both her uncle and father passing away from COVID within weeks of each other. She openly shared what happened, feeling safe to do so. You could tell she was still in the shock phase of grief as she described how the day prior she came to work wearing two left shoes. She did not know what to do with herself, and did not want to stay home alone, so she came to work.

While she was excused from rigorous work, she kept busy and her coworkers and bosses, including me, lent a listening and empathetic ear. We were there for her, and empathized with her situation, understanding that she was going through a difficult time and not expecting her to suck it up and go on as if nothing happened. Her job security was not threatened, her performance review would skip this tough time, and she was allowed to grieve and do what she could in the meantime. Allowances were made, and communication prioritized.

A few years ago, I went through my own period of grief as I suffered intense anxiety and c-PTSD. At the time, I felt lucky that I had supportive coworkers at the company I worked for, and that, while what I went through was incredibly hard, I could squeeze in enough time for self-care throughout my days so that I could survive.

From my own experience, I learned many valuable lessons on how to navigate overwhelming emotions while maintaining a full-time job (as a research scientist).

  1. Locate safe spaces where you can go to break-down and feel all of those overwhelming emotions.

During my period of grief and anxiety, I had 3 safe spaces I would retreat to: my car, an empty office, and the restroom.

My car was by far the best because I could recline the seat and take a nap, cry, or meditate easily without being disturbed.

Nearly every day at 3pm I would take a 10-30 minute break and meditate in the empty office space.

The restroom was a great “quick escape” if I needed to catch my breath, but it would echo if I cried and people would enter, so it was not very private.

If you’re at a university, locate different offices where you may be allowed to take some quiet time to yourself. At one of my universities there was a women’s center with a nice couch, for instance. There may be spaces tucked away you can claim as your own when you need them.

2. In those safe spaces and at your workstation or desk keep a self-care kit.

I first built my self-care kit that I keep easily accessible in my bedroom during a panic attack. In the moment, I thought about which items I could use right then and there to ground myself and self soothe. In the next moment when I could move, I quickly grabbed an empty shoe box and filled it with items like tea bags, photos that made me smile, my essential oils, and these funky diffraction grating glasses because every time I wear them and see rainbows everywhere I can’t help but be amused.

My self-care kit also grew to include a journal, my favorite pink sparkly gel pen, and other sentimental items that make me feel happy.

Keeping a self-care kit on-hand for when you experience overwhelming emotions can decrease the time of distress from hours to minutes (it does for me!). It’s easy to pack a small container of things that make you feel serene or happy in your car or at your work desk.

I’ve since healed from PTSD and anxiety, but still keep self-care items at my desk like a heating pad for period cramps. You’re allowed to make your workplace comfortable and conducive to producing your best work!

3. Inform at least those who need to know about your emotional state.

I hope you work in a healthy environment for this one! It’s important to have psychological safety at work, and part of that means sharing when there is something that may lead to a reduction in your performance and finding solutions.

When I first started having anxiety and PTSD, I told a coworker I could trust about what I was going through so that at least one person knew what was going on if I had to leave the workplace suddenly or my symptoms got worse. I also told my boss, though left out the personal details surrounding why I was struggling. I kept it to only what I felt he needed to know. Both were understanding, and happy to step in and help provide accommodations if I could not keep up with my work load. I felt lucky I was in that kind of work environment because the previous one would not have been so considerate.

If you’re the only woman in your team or company (or the only person of any specific demographic), it can be daunting to share your struggles for fear of being seen as problematic or weak (or even fired). Remember, you are your own best advocate and you do not have to share anything you are not comfortable with sharing. When I am in this situation, I draw strength and courage from remembering that my most important job is to ensure that I feel safe and comfortable at work or school, and to take care of myself.

Note that whatever you are going through is a normal part of life. By reaching out, being vulnerable, and sharing with supportive coworkers you are not only ensuring your own psychological safety, but also deepening professional relationships. If anyone makes you feel lesser-than for struggling, that is a reflection of their own issues and not you. It’s important not to take it personally, though that can be difficult.

4. Prioritize your own wellness inside and outside of work.

From the self-care kit, to communicating to coworkers about your struggles and how that may affect your work, you are ultimately performing self-care. It’s important not to stop there.

Get really focused on the few things that have to get done, and forget the rest. Minimize where you are spending your time and energy, and use as much time as possible to self-care.

For me, this looked like working 40-hours (no more), taking the breaks I’m allowed at work (and using them to meditate and eat), and after work doing NOTHING but caring for myself. I did not take on any professional development trainings or volunteer work. I did not try to plan a trip to Europe. I just focused on the present moment, getting through each day, and learning how to care for myself and heal. I attended therapy weekly (which I HIGHLY recommend), which helped me learn different coping strategies.

Focus on you, and do the minimum at work and outside.

5. Learn coping techniques.

Everybody is different, so no two people will have the same coping strategies that will work for them and their situation. They key is to be curious and experiment with different coping techniques until you find what works best for you. STAY CURIOUS!

When I was at the height of coping with anxiety, I used my self-care kit for panic attacks, meditation about 3 time a day (10-30 minutes per session), and breathing techniques to soothe my nervous system.

I first started learning about meditation with the app Headspace, which was my 3pm ritual every day at work.

I also had a FitBit watch with this feature called “Breathe”. When activated, it would pulse and light up indicating when to breathe in and out, leading you in a rhythmic breathing exercise. This was a life-saver! I would use this whenever I felt a panic attack coming on and it often stopped it in its tracks. I could even use it quietly at my work desk; nobody had to know I was taking a 5-minute breather!

There are a variety of different coping techniques I learned in therapy and just through YouTube videos. Grounding techniques that root me in the present were most helpful for my situation, but perhaps you may need something different.

One of the most important things I learned is that just ignoring or brushing off an emotion was NOT the way to cope. There were some moments I had to brush off an emotion just to get through a work day, but I would write it down and remember later that day to really feel into that emotion so that I could process and release it.

When we cry in sadness or punch a pillow in anger, we are processing and releasing our emotions. This is essential to heal and move forward in a healthy manner. If you find yourself holding back tears at work, know that it’s a good thing to cry and go to your safe space to release that emotion. Keep crying, keep processing that emotion. Eventually things will change and you won’t be crying as often.

As I healed from my anxiety and c-PTSD, restructured my life to be full of self-care, and deepened my relationships by sharing my struggles and connecting with others who were going through similar, life seemed so much more beautiful and profound than before my suffering. I found the beauty in suffering, in loss and grief, and in the love that grew from the despair (love for myself, and the love from friends and family). Know that whatever you are struggling to cope with will lead to valuable lessons and perspectives, and help you grow into your best self.

My favorite mantras were: “one day at a time”, “find the beauty in this tough emotion”, and “this too shall pass”.

If you would like to learn how to navigate bias, harassment, and discrimination at work and/or school, you will want to check out The STEM Thrive Guides online courses, which provide information on how to document and report harassment. I also have a FREE Guide to Internship Success that shares essential information for getting mentors and sponsors, as well as job opportunities!

Also, I want to invite you to follow The STEM Thrive Guides on Instagram (@stemthriveguides) or Twitter (@stemthriveguide), and subscribe the The Resilient in STEM podcast!

If you want to continue this discussion, join the Resilient in STEM Facebook community, which is a private community there to support you on your career journey! Everyone is welcome!


Hello Fresh really helped me stay well-fed and nourished during a time when my anxiety induced a lack of appetite. I highly recommend using this meal service, which is delivered to your door weekly (or as frequent as you’d like), and very delicious!

Email stemthriveguides@gmail.com with the subject “HELLO FRESH” to get a discount!

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