And what to do instead of slapping your coworker.
If you missed it, the biggest headline from this year’s Oscar awards was Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on stage because he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia. Of course, we can argue all day about what the consequences should be and where the line between comedy and cruelty lies. Still, Smith’s faux pas holds some real lessons to be learned about our emotions and how they can send us into overdrive at the least ideal moments, often leading to serious consequences. Whether you’re a celebrity or the average Joe, it’s essential to know how your brain deals with stress and how to handle it effectively in the workplace so you can keep yourself from making career decisions you might regret later.
Emotional Stress is a Showstopper
While not every workplace drama is broadcast on live TV, the “slap” is an excellent example of how stress and trauma can be triggered in professional spaces. Of course, you probably won’t face such disastrous consequences and public scrutiny as our Fresh Prince, but I’ll bet you can think of a time when you got stressed out at work and reacted poorly.
Maybe your boss said something that upset you more than you think it should have, or you lashed out at a coworker because you were frustrated, or you decided not to ask for that promotion because you didn’t think you were good enough. Perhaps you have a clinical diagnosis, like complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and something unexpectedly triggered you at work. Or you have major depression, and your emotions feel like they’re keeping you from chasing after your goals.
While they might seem like very different challenges, all these self-defeating thoughts and actions stem from your amygdala, the part of your brain that produces your “fight-or-flight” or trauma response. It can be activated by any experience that causes stress, fear, anxiety, frustration, or anger. It puts us into a survival mindset designed to protect ourselves from further physical or emotional harm. In the case of Will Smith, you don’t have to be a mind reader to see that Chris Rock’s joke provoked at least one of those feelings in him, if not many.
But that wave of emotions can push us to do things we would usually never do, which is apparent in the public apology Smith posted on his Instagram the day after the show. “Jokes at my expense are a part of the job,” he wrote, “but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear, and I reacted emotionally…I am embarrassed, and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be.” This is a perfect example of how our stress responses blind us to rationality and logic, making us unable to see beyond the threat at hand until the damage has already been done.
The good news is that there are tools you can use to quiet these responses, if not altogether remove them from your brain. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many employers to consider the importance of mental health in ways they haven’t before. There is more space than ever to take care of your mental wellness so you can do your job without the weight of stress and burnout.