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!

Links:

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!

Help! I’m being harassed and don’t know what to do.

Hello friend,

First, I’m sorry to hear you’re experiencing a difficult situation at work or school involving bias, harassment, or discrimination. You do not deserve this kind of treatment; you deserve to feel safe and comfortable in your environment. 

I wrote out this message to help guide you in your journey to navigate this difficult situation. Since you’re already in the midst of a crisis or emergency situation, there is a lot of information that may be unhelpful at this point (for instance, how to develop supportive professional relationships. It’s likely too late to start developing those relationships in order to improve your situation.) Despite this, I want you to know that it was a good idea to reach out for help, and you are definitely making the right decision by reading this now! There is still a lot you can do to make the most of this situation. Please keep reading. 

The first thing I want you to take notice of is your mental, physical, and emotional state. If you have any health issues or illnesses, or if you feel scared and overwhelmed, know that this is normal for someone who is experiencing what you are going though. As an example, when I was at the height of being harassed in a particularly toxic situation, my symptoms were depression, fatigue, disordered eating, anxiety, panic attacks, stomach aches, food sensitivities, fear, frustration, confusion, and anger (to name a few). 

From this point forward, your prioritized focus should be your own self care as much as possible. Say “no” more often to things that do not positively serve you, take time off work or school if you need it, and ask yourself “what would someone who loves themself do?” when in doubt about what to do next or if you’re feeling particularly awful. Do something every day that brings you joy or makes you belly-laugh! (Regular meditation also helps me, and I like using guided meditations on YouTube or on the apps Insight Timer or Headspace.)

You need to prioritize self care for your own well being and because navigating harassment can be very emotionally and mentally draining. You need to maintain your wellness through whatever your course of actions may be. Focus on what you can control. An exercise to grow your self awareness so that you can self care is available in Part 4 of the Mini-course: Tips for Addressing Harassment during the Pandemic. 

The second thing to focus on is your documentation of all of the bias, microaggressions, harassment, and discrimination you have experienced. Keep all your records of this harassment in a safe, accessible place. Your records can include your own notes as well as emails, online chat messages, and whatever evidence you may have. For more information on how to document harassment and for the STEM Thrive Guides Harassment Documentation Checklist, check out Part 2 of the Mini-Course: How to Document Harassment

When documenting and proceeding to report harassment, it’s important to know your legal protections. Your school or workplace has its own policies, and your local government also has its own policies. Harassment, sexual harassment, hostile workplace, and discrimination are a few legal terms to know and understand very well. When documenting harassment or looking over your documentation, keep your legal protections in mind. Note that your legal protections may not protect you from all forms of harassment. To learn more about how to learn your legal protections, you can take Part 1 of the Mini-Course: What are bias, microaggressions, harassment, and discrimination? Also, consider contacting a lawyer to ask them questions as they would be more familiar with all of the legal protections. 

If you want to reach a resolution or justice from the situation you’re experiencing (which, I’m guessing you do because you’re reading this), then it’s important to know your desired resolution. 

In the full versions of the STEM Thrive Guides Courses I teach 2 processes I’ve developed to navigate these situations: The Resilience Mindset and The Reporting Framework. The Resilience Mindset is a set of 5 truths that one needs to fully understand in order feel confident, comfortable, and unashamed when reporting harassment or seeking a resolution. The Reporting Framework is 5 questions one needs to answer to determine the best way to resolve an issue. Since you’re in an urgent situation and don’t have time to practice and implement these tools, for now:

  • First try to resolve the issue through your workplace/school’s procedure (usually written in an employee handbook or student handbook).
  • Second, if that doesn’t work or if your workplace or school is retaliating against you, seek help and advice from a lawyer unaffiliated with your organization, or another organization like a union. For more information on how to report harassment and develop supportive professional relationships, see Part 3 of the Mini-Course: How to Report Harassment.

Note that if you try to work within a company or school’s system to reach a resolution, the people you’ll work with in Human Resources (HR) or in an office of equal opportunity and diversity or an ombudsman office are not necessarily there to help you. They are there to protect the company/school from lawsuits. Therefore, always seek other unbiased opinions if they tell you that you don’t have enough evidence to file a lawsuit. 

Also, even if you file a formal report, the repercussions to the harasser may be just a “slap on the wrist” (no actual punishment or restrictions). Reporting my not lead to the resolution you want. (My personal opinion is that reporting is the right thing to do for your own wellness and confidence whether it gets you justice or not.) An environment that is not supportive of you is an environment that you do not want to stay in for long. Don’t waste your time somewhere that’s not helping you grow in your career! 

Overall, know that what you are going through is a normal part of a successful career. Unfortunately, at some point we all experience some from of harassment at work or school. It’s a professional skill to know how to navigate these situations. Take this experience as an opportunity to learn and grow both personally and professionally. This is an opportunity for you to advocate for yourself, grow your confidence, grow relationships with supporters and allies, and see what career opportunities may be a better fit for you! While right now may be very difficult, trust me, it gets better! 

Thanks again for reaching out for help! I want to reiterate that you do deserve to and have the right to feel safe and comfortable in your work or school environment. Please feel free to reach out to me either on social media or by emailing stemthriveguides@gmail.com. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have on which resources are best for you and your specific situation.

All of the courses that provide in-depth lessons on navigating difficult situations at work and school are available at www.stemthriveguides.com, and there are more resources at jillpestana.com


Your friend & ally,

Jill

Resilient in STEM Facebook Community: Here!

Instagram: @stemthriveguides

Twitter: @stemthriveguide

More Links: Here!

Ask Jill: Should I request a letter of recommendation from abusive graduate advisor?

Dear former graduate student seeking new (and better!) opportunities,

I am sorry you’re facing these unnecessary challenges when all you want is to reach your goals and secure that next step in your field. I, unfortunately, know exactly how you feel.

I had an abusive graduate advisor, and when I left graduate school I worried that I would be ineligible for opportunities without that glowing letter of recommendation.

  • Should I reach out and request a letter even though it triggered me to be in touch with my former advisor?
  • Even if they did write the letter, would it be filled with all the negative energy this advisor directed toward me during my years in their lab group?
If I were you, here is what I would do:

First, 3 questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you feel unsafe or uncomfortable when interacting with your former advisor?
  2. How honest can you be with the future employer that’s asking for the letter?
  3. Will your advisor write a negative letter of recommendation for you?

You should definitely not subject yourself to further abuse from this person. This advisor had the opportunity to provide the bare minimum level of support and guidance and failed miserably, instead using you as a punching-bag for their insecurities or outlet for their anger. This was absolutely not your fault. You never deserve to be treated this way. Avoid interacting with your former advisor, especially if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable doing so.

Did your workplace specifically request a letter of recommendation from your former advisor, or will a letter from a different professor or staff member suffice? In the case that they want a letter from your advisor, or question why the letter is not from your advisor, can you be honest with this employer?

Unfortunately, workplace abuse is common, especially in places with clear power hierarchies like in academia. You might be surprised that many employers can be empathetic to your circumstance. When I was applying to my first job out of my toxic graduate school lab, I was worried my next employer would look down on me for the abuse I endured (I still felt that it was my fault because of gaslighting). I developed answers to questions including “why are you leaving graduate school” that emphasized that I wanted to move forward positively, which was true, but also were a means to mask the fact that my abusive advisor forced me out of my program without a clear reason. Little did I know, one of my coworkers (who would become my manager) had also had an abusive graduate school advisor that forced them to leave graduate school.

In the case that I needed a letter of recommendation for this job, looking back I realize I could have been open and (1) state that I did not feel comfortable or safe obtaining a letter of recommendation from my former advisor because they were abusive toward me, and (2) suggest I request a letter of recommendation from a different professor.

There are multiple benefits to using this strategy when navigating this situation. Not only are you setting healthy boundaries with your former advisor, but also you are testing whether your future employer will be supportive of you. In the case that you explain the abuse and the employer insists on the letter, they are not being respectful of your boundaries that you are setting for your health and safety. Would you want to work for someone who treats you like that?

Abuse, harassment, and discrimination are widespread issues, especially in disciplines that are not diverse. If you have been or are currently a minority in your field or workplace, it is more likely for you to experience microaggressions, harassment, bias, discrimination, and abuse. Employers should be able to understand and empathize with potential hires who have endured abuse at previous school or workplaces if they truly support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in their organization.

I, certainly, would not want to work for anyone who sees me as problematic for being a victim of bias, harassment, and abuse. This is especially because navigating those incidents gave me new skills, knowledge, and experience. I am stronger, smarter, and more capable BECAUSE of the obstacles I have faced, not despite them.

With the heightened visibility of the #MeToo Movement and #BlackLivesMatter, plus the harassment trainings mandated in schools and workplaces, by now everyone should realize that at some point or another everyone will experience a form of abuse at work or school. It is ordinary and normal to experience abuse, so why do we feel like we must conceal our victimhood?

Being open about abuse and harassment is not easy. It is brave. It take courage. I have found that the more open I am about my struggles, the easier it is for me to identify who is supportive of me and who is not, and, thus, easier to set boundaries with or stay way from those who are unsupportive of me.

Finally, if you absolutely must provide a letter from this abusive advisor despite asking for an exception, and you need this job for your livelihood and have no other options, what should you do?

Do you know if the letter from this advisor will be negative or positive? If not, you must accept that you have no control over what is included in this letter. It can be enraging if your abusive advisor chooses to write false or exaggerated claims preventing you from reaching this next career step, but that is not in your control. I encourage you in this situation to just focus on the things you can control including the rest of the interview process, your self-care, and, ultimately, your decision of whether to accept the job or not.

Remember, you are the asset. If an employer decides you are not a “good fit” for their organization, there is likely a better opportunity awaiting you elsewhere where you will be valued.

Thanks for your question!

Sincerely,

Jill

If you would like to submit a question to “Ask Jill” you can direct message me on Instagram, or email stemthriveguides@gmail.com your question with the Subject Line: Ask Jill.