An Emotional Outburst at Work: Now What?
Updated: Aug 8
Understand the reasons for an emotional outburst and how to manage so it doesn't happen again in the workplace and in other areas of your life.
So you had an emotional outburst at work. You said things you didn't mean. You raised your voice. You threatened to quit. You upset someone on your team.
Now you're left stressed, worried, and panicked about the future of your job, your reputation, and more.
An emotional outburst in the workplace can happen for many reasons. Regardless of the reason however, the stress and anxiety that comes after it can be just as upsetting.
The good news is, we can take responsibility and prevent this from happening again. We do this by:
1) Understanding the reasons for an emotional outburst
2) Responding assertively when it happens
3) Learning how to prevent it from happening again and interfering in your life.
An Emotional Outburst: What Is It and Why Does It Happen?
It’s helpful to first understand an emotional outburst and why it happens.
An emotional outburst is a strong, temporary reaction that often comes from high stress, anxiety, irritability, anger, or other strong emotions.
Emotional outbursts are often uncontrollable and unplanned.
This might look like intensive crying, yelling and screaming, swearing or using profanity, throwing things, storming off, slamming doors, or other more aggressive actions that occur due to strong emotions.
Causes of Emotional Outbursts
There are many causes of emotional outbursts. Below are some common reasons:
1) High Stress and Anxiety
One of the most common reasons for emotional outbursts is poorly managed stress and anxiety. When stress and anxiety are high, the sympathetic nervous system gets activated, causing a series of physiological changes such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, muscle tension, and racing thoughts.
Activation of the nervous system can lead people to feel more irritable and tense, which can result in an emotional outburst.
2) Pent Up Emotions
Pent up emotions or pushing emotions and difficult situations down in general can cause a buildup of emotions until there is an explosion.
Those who internalize upsetting things frequently and don’t address them are at greater risk of having an emotional outburst.
Anger is another common reason for emotional outbursts. When we feel angry, the same sympathetic nervous system response activates, sometimes to a higher degree, causing a series of physiological, behavioral, and cognitive changes.
With an angry outburst, we are more likely to display aggressive behaviors such as yelling, screaming, punching, and other aggressive actions.
4) Poor Sleep
Poor sleep is another reason for an emotional outburst. When we don't sleep well, more of the stress hormone, cortisol, is released into the body.
Higher stress and more irritability due to low sleep can increase the likelihood of an emotional outburst.
How to Respond After An Emotional Outburst
Having an emotional outburst at work can be very stressful and concerning. Emotional outbursts can cause you to feel stressed, worried, and disappointed in yourself. It is important not to be too hard on yourself if this happens.
Instead, focus on how to address it and move forward. Below are some ways to manage if you do have an emotional outburst at work:
1) De-escalate First
If this happens, it is first important to de-escalate by calming the nervous system with a combination of deep breathing and distraction to get your mind off of the situation.
Therefore, calming the body and mind by turning to distraction and deep breathing can be helpful.
2) Take Ownership and Responsibility
Once you’ve had some time to calm down and think about how you want to approach the situation, it is important to take ownership and responsibility for what has happened.
Consider your actions and think of a genuine apology to give to the appropriate people. Utilize the following format for assertively communicating an apology:
I am sorry/I apologize for _______ (behavior e.g. yelling, screaming, raising voice, etc.). Followed by a remediation plan (how will you ensure this does not happen again, a better solution to the problem, etc.).
Example: I am very sorry for raising my voice and storming out of the meeting. My frustration got the best of me and that is not how I want to respond if we have a disagreement. In the future, I will make sure to voice my concerns calmly in the meeting and will work to make sure that this does not happen again.
There is no right or wrong way to apologize using this format, but it is important to take direct responsibility and offer a plan or solution on how you will work to prevent this from happening again.
Forgive Yourself and Move Forward
While it can be tempting to be very hard on yourself after an emotional outburst occurs, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself and keep things moving forward.
All you can do is take responsibility and learn from your mistakes. So, focusing on your plan moving forward rather than beating yourself up for this will be very important.
Preventing Emotional Outbursts at Work
Learning how to respond after you have had an emotional outburst at work is very important. However, more importantly, it is crucial to learn how to prevent emotional outbursts from happening in the future.
1) Identify Triggers
First, it's important to identify your triggers to high stress and other strong emotions. Triggers are known situations, people, events, etc., that cause us to feel angry or upset faster than usual.
This may be a specific coworker, being under a deadline, getting negative feedback, etc. We need to be aware of our triggers so we can prepare for them.
2) Identify Early Clues
We also want to be aware of early clues that tell us that we are starting to get upset and angry. 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:
Physical clues we are escalating will be related to activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or the fight or flight response.
This may include physical changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, chest tightness, feeling hot, and experiencing muscle tension.
Our behavior tends to change in predictable ways when we get upset. Noticing how your behavior changes specifically when you start to get upset can be very helpful.
This might look like behavioral changes such as pacing, clenching your fists, tapping your pen on the table, or your voice getting louder.
Before we have an emotional outburst, we often experience earlier emotions. This might include first feeling stressed, frustrated, upset, or other emotions.
Recognizing early emotional changes is an important part of taking action before we have an emotional outburst in the workplace.
Our thoughts change in predictable ways when we get upset as well. Usually our thoughts are related to more negative thinking about the situation or person.
Once our thinking starts to get more negative or hostile, this is often a clue that we are starting to escalate and could be at risk of losing our temper.
Once we know our triggers and early clues, we can better prepare and manage. As soon as you notice any of the early clues to losing your temper, it's important to take action to calm the nervous system immediately.
The sooner we can take action, the better we can prevent losing our temper. The single most important stress and anger management strategy is early recognition and action.
A helpful strategy for better understanding triggers and clues is journaling. Once you have encountered an upsetting situation, it is helpful to journal about the situation and to identify triggers and early clues.
By monitoring this information over time, you can build greater self-awareness that can help you prevent an emotional explosion. Try journaling briefly in the following format:
Early physical clues:
Early behavior clues:
Early emotional clues:
Early cognitive clues:
My reaction to the situation:
Taking Action Early
Once you are aware of your triggers and early clues, it is important to prepare. As soon as you notice early clues you are starting to escalate, taking some deep breaths can be very helpful for calming the nervous system.
Distraction from the upsetting situation can also be helpful, such as going for a walk or watching a funny video on YouTube.
Similar strategies will apply for known triggers. If you know that you are going to encounter a trigger, such as a co-worker who you do not like, before entering the triggering situation, you also want to calm the nervous system with the deep breathing exercise followed by distraction.
Example: You have identified that having to participate in meetings with a loud co-worker is a trigger. Therefore, before you go into this meeting, you will take some deep breaths and utilize distraction to think about something else.
In the meeting, using mental distraction will be important. After the meeting, spend some additional time deep breathing and distracting your mind.
If you know that the workplace is a trigger for you in general, it is important to prepare for this.
Before entering the workplace, it is important to calm the nervous system and start the day as calmly as possible.
It is helpful to start your day with 5 to 10 minutes of deep breathing or other relaxation strategies. Utilizing these strategies throughout the day can also be helpful in lowering stress that naturally builds.
Emotional explosions in the workplace can be very stressful and upsetting. However, you now have the tools to help you respond assertively and better understand emotional outbursts and how to prevent and manage them.
These strategies take practice, but building self-awareness is one of the best ways to prevent emotional outbursts and keep your mood stable.
Stressed about emotional outbursts in the workplace and other places in your life? My 1:1 coaching program will help you prevent emotional outbursts from happening again and give you a greater sense of control in your life.
I’ve helped hundreds of stressed out professionals change their lives and gain better control. I can’t wait to work with you next. Book a discovery call so we can talk about how to change your life next!
-------About Dr. Julia
Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.
I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.
My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.
My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.
I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)