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You Messed Up at Work. Now What?

April 05, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

Sometimes a work flub is as harmless as misspelling someone’s name in an email. But other mistakes can have more serious consequences, like putting your company’s reputation in jeopardy when you miss a VIP client meeting. These occasions are likely to trigger a stress response. Understanding what’s happening in your body and learning how to manage it, both on the spot and in the long-term, is key to mitigating it.

Let’s say your presentation to the executive team goes horribly—perhaps your slides were out of order or you forgot your lines. You might return to your desk with waves of panic washing over you: I’m going to get fired. Chalk that up to the stress response that floods your brain with stress chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine, effectively shutting down your prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that allows you to reason rather than react.

“The prefrontal cortex is almost everything we are,” says Dr. Amy Arnsten, a professor of neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine. It controls our thinking, inhibition, empathy, ability to focus and plan, and more. It also keeps in check the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain that produces stress chemicals and fires up responses such as fear and aggression (which could explain why, in addition to being worried, you’ve just snapped at your assistant).

“The chemicals released during stress strengthen the primitive system at the same time they weaken prefrontal,” Arnsten says. “So you descend into a vicious cycle: Prefrontal starts to go offline, which strengthens the amygdala, which further strengthens the stress response, which further takes prefrontal offline.”

All this can happen in seconds. “The evolutionary advantage [of that speed] is that if you’re suddenly faced with a tiger you want prefrontal to go offline so that these primitive reflexes, which are very rapid, can take over and save your life,” Arnsten says. But in an office environment, a reflexive response can mean firing off a rude email or blowing a deadline because your emotions overwhelm your ability to think clearly.

Tame Your Primitive Brain

“The first thing you can do is slow down,” says Dr. Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity. “You want to give your prefrontal cortex a chance to get back on board. So stop, take a minute. Count to ten or go outside and get some fresh air.”

Greenberg also recommends taking deep, calming breaths, which not only buys the brain time but also mitigates the stoking of your sympathetic nervous system by the hypothalamus (another vital brain center), which triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. “The sympathetic nervous system revs things up,” Greenberg says. “It’s like an accelerator on the car.” The parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect. “Its [purpose is] more like ‘rest or digest,’” Greenberg says. Deep breaths slow down your heart rate, which can have a parasympathetic effect.

Mindful meditation is another tool. “You have to do it repeatedly and the brain takes months or years to change—it’s not something you can do instantly,” Greenberg says. But you can start by combining deep breathing with an awareness of your senses: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I feel? “You’re basically training the brain over time to be more at ease and less reactive.”

Mindfulness also helps diffuse workplace meltdowns because it trains you to live in the moment. “So often our brains go to the future and worrying about what’s going to happen, or to the past and what we regret,” she says. “Get yourself back in the present,” she says. “Feel the weight of your body in the chair. Because our brain tends to make up stories”—I’m worthless, I’m going to get fired, and so forth—“and you want to try to not be so caught up in them.”

Another way to push back on those stories is to talk to a trusted coworker. “If you have a sympathetic ear and it’s not going to add to the conflict, and you can trust the person to be discreet, then it’s probably one of the best things that you can do,” Dr. Richard Contrada, a professor of psychology at Rutgers, says. “You’re putting the experience that you just had into words such that another person can understand it,” and in doing so, engaging a more rational part of your brain. (If confiding in a coworker seems inappropriate, try writing down your thoughts in a journal – it can have a similar effect.)

Shift Your Perspective

Work stress is inevitable, but reducing its occurrence is as important for your overall health as it is for your standing at the office. “An ideal response is you do something [about stress] before it even happens,” Contrada says. But since you can’t predict every mistake you’re going to make, he adds, “think about how to make some good come out of [a misstep] when it does happen — there’s often a lesson you can learn that you could apply to future events.”

Arnsten advises reimagining what “making a mistake” means to you in the first place. “If a mistake makes you feel out of control, threatened, that’s when your [amygdala will be triggered] and prefrontal can go offline,” she says. “Whereas if you feel confident, then your prefrontal can stay online. So if you’re someone whose response [to a mistake] is, Mistakes are good. This is how we learn. I’m really challenging myself—that’s very different from, They’re gonna think I’m an idiot. I might get fired. Now they can really make fun of me. Our best hope is being kind to ourselves.”

It helps to know yourself, Arnsten adds, so you can tap your time-tested calming strategies. “I purposely live out in the country where I can go out for a walk in the woods by the lakes,” she says. “I know it helps me deal with difficulty.” If, on the other hand, you tend to feel better after a quick cup of tea, go pour yourself one.

“People are so different with what helps them. It’s about stopping and thinking for yourself: What kinds of things make me feel better? And then give them to yourself.” Just make sure you make it back to the office on time for your next meeting.

Another way to de-stress: by treating yourself to a piece from our spring collection.


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Patti Greco is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She was previously Cosmopolitan's digital entertainment director and a staff editor at New York Magazine and Vulture. Read more of Patti's posts.


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