9 Ways to Avoid a Complete Meltdown When You’re Stressed Out at Work

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Because walking off the job isn’t an option for most people, here are 9 things you can do to get control of the situation.

9 ways to avoid a complete meltdown when you are stressed out at work

When was the last time you had a heart-pounding, teeth grinding, “how am I going to do all this” kind of workday?

One of those days where you’re close to a complete meltdown and planning a trip to the bathroom where no one will see you come unglued?

I’ve had those days. I bet you’ve had one at some point too.

When you’re feeling that stressed out at work, getting through the day can feel like an endurance challenge. A triathlon you didn’t train for.

Because walking off the job isn’t an option for most people, you need real world, get the day under control tactics that work.

Because walking off the job isn’t an option for most people, you need real world, get the day under control tactics that work.

This article will help you do that.

But first, let’s look at the problem of stress in the workplace. And, yes, it’s a real problem and a big one too.

Surprising Statistics About Workplace Stress

It’s not just you and me who’ve dealt with overwhelming stress at work, a lot of people feel stressed out at work.

We're not talking about a little stress either.

Today's workplaces are creating serious, life-impacting work stress.

So how bad is it? It’s bad – really bad – for a lot of people.

These five statistics from recent surveys on workers and workplace stress show that nearly everyone experiences stress and it’s causing problems at work and at home:

statistics about work and workplace stress

It’s unfortunate, but I think, for many people, feeling stressed out at work is their new normal.

What Causes Stress at Work

You know stress when you're experiencing it, but what causes it?

There are a lot of factors that create stress at work, from poorly functioning processes to ineffective management and a whole lot of things in between.

In terms of actual day-to-day work, it's often 'too many' that creates a problem:

  • Too many emails

  • Too many requests that you can’t ignore

  • Too many to-do list items competing for your time

  • Too many people not doing their job so you can do yours

When I have this many things going on (or going wrong), I go into survival mode.

I feel overwhelmed by having too many things to do. My heart races, my chest feels tight, my stress level creeps up.

And, if I don't get things back in check, I'll head into meltdown mode, which is that feeling of being completely, utterly overwhelmed.

When I feel this overwhelmed, I focus on doing two things: getting control of my emotions and getting control of the work.

Now, let's look at how to do both.

Managing stress at work by getting control of your emotions

Managing Stress: Get Control of Your Emotions

It’s not healthy to spend hour after hour working in maximum stress mode. Stress affects the physical processes in your body, how you feel emotionally, and how you deal with people and situations.

Because has such a significant impact on how you feel and react when you feel overwhelmed, the first step in managing stress is getting control of your emotions.

Here are five strategies that help me get my emotions under control and lower my stress level:

1. Take a few deep breaths.

This triggers the body’s relaxation response. The relaxation response helps you feel calm again when you’re stressed out. Your muscles relax, your breathing returns to normal, and your heart rate slows down. As your body returns to a less stressed state, you begin to feel better. I’ve found that even taking a couple of deep breaths is enough to calm my stress.

2. Walk while you collect your thoughts.

Calming movements, such as a slow walk, helps lower stress and anxiety. Walking helps calm my thoughts, so I don't feel like I'm bouncing from one thought to another. Calm thinking helps calm my physical reaction to the stress too. When stress and anxiety drop, I can focus my energy on dealing with problems instead of reacting to the stress. Going for a quick walk outside or just wandering around inside for a few minutes makes it much easier for me to collect my thoughts.

3. Put the current situation in perspective.

When things go wrong, we often focus on how bad everything is and ignore everything else that's not bad. Narrowing your perspective like this is a problem because it distorts the situation and makes everything feel worse. Focusing on how bad things are causes you to ignore the good things that are going on. Your perspective becomes distorted; you see too much bad and too little good. Lopsided distortions of reality do not help you cope with the situation. In fact, they can cause you to believe that the situation is worse than it is or that it's unfixable. This thinking then triggers even more stress.

The key is to keep the situation in perspective. Don't let your thoughts about the situation spiral out of control. I get my thoughts under control by reminding myself that the challenges I’m dealing with don't define my life. The situation may be bad, but my life is not bad. The problems are difficult, but they can be managed.

4. Focus on the present moment.

When you get stressed, your thoughts jump around in time. They swing between the present, the past, and the future.

That process often looks something like this:

You feel completely overwhelmed about the situation and paralyzed by stress. You have no idea what to do next. Because you feel like things are so bad now, you start worrying about what could go wrong in the future. Those thoughts make you feel even more stressed out. Then you start thinking about what you could have done differently in the past, and that makes you feel worse too.

Now you're stressed out by everything: the past, the present, and the future. All this ruminating on different points in time isn't helpful because it keeps you from focusing on the current moment. That's where you need to be to take the actions you need to take to deal with the situation at hand. The only thing that matters in the present moment is the present moment. It's time to reign in those thoughts and focus on what you need to do right now.

5. Remind yourself that you can handle the situation.

Don’t let a terrible day cause you to question your abilities. You made it through every challenging day before this one. And you will make it through this day too. Getting through the situation may be a terrible experience, but it's manageable. All problems have a solution – even this one. I manage self-doubt by reminding myself that I can manage this situation. When doubt creeps in, I push it out by refocusing on what I can do to manage the situation, not how I feel about the situation or myself.

Here's the big picture take away from these five strategies:

We're better able to emotionally cope with and manage difficult situations at work when we’re not overwhelmed by emotion.

Reducing stress frees up the mental and physical energy you need to focus on getting control of the work situation.

Managing stress at work by getting control of the workload

Managing Stress: Get Control of Your Work

Once your stress drops to a more manageable level, it’s time to deal with the work mess. Here are four strategies I use to get control of the work:

6. Straighten your desktop.

If the surface of my desk is a mess, I don’t feel calm or inspired. The mess reminds me of the chaotic and overwhelming situation I'm dealing with. I need a calm workspace to calm my mind. It also takes longer to find what you need when you have to dig through the stacks of paper and random things that pile up on your desk. In fact, a recent survey showed that the average worker loses 4.3 hours of work time each week looking for information in or on their desk. The few minutes it takes to straighten your desktop are worth it. An organized desktop saves you time and contributes to a calm mind and an inspiring workspace.

7. Prioritize tasks by urgency and importance.

When you have too much to do, listing those tasks helps you assess the scope of what you're dealing with. But that list is a starting point, not a stopping point.

After listing the tasks, prioritize them by importance and urgency. Go through every item on the list and mark it as important (yes or no) and urgent (yes or no). The priority tasks on your list are urgent (they must be done ASAP) and important (they must be done). Place these tasks at the top of your list. These are the ones you need to focus on first.

Tasks that are not urgent or important are removed from today's list. Those tasks may need to be done, but they don't need to be done today. Anything in the middle (urgent/not important and important/not urgent) are moved to the bottom of today's list. After you've completed the priority tasks, start working on this list. Prioritizing tasks helps you focus on the tasks that will make the biggest impact on your workload for the day. That's why prioritizing is one of the key elements of time management systems.

8. Single task your way through your to-do list.

We all love the idea of multitasking, but it’s not as effective as we think it is, and we’re not as good at it as we think we are. Instead of multitasking, work through your to-do list one task at a time. Complete each task before you move on to the next one or until you complete as much as you can without information from someone else. If you have to stop because you're waiting on other people, start on the next task. I find single-tasking less frustrating because I'm not shifting my attention from one thing to another. Plus, I get to experience the relief (and accomplishment) of marking a task off of my list.

9. Turn off email notifications and set your IM to busy.

Notifications and IMs distract you from what you're working on. They break your concentration and disrupt the flow of your work. The interruptions also increase the time it takes to complete the task you’re working on. Disabling notifications helps you stay focused on your work. Being more focused allows you to complete the task more quickly. When you start seeing progress, you feel less overwhelmed.

Once you start controlling the workflow, your stress level falls. As work gets done, panic subsides. When you feel less stressed and less panicked, you're better able to cope with the workload.


When everything is going wrong at work, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You can start to feel like you’re headed into meltdown mode. But don’t let your emotions and the difficult circumstances send you over the edge.

Use the strategies above to get your emotions under control, then use the second set of strategies to get the work under control.

You’ve got this.

How do you deal with stress at work? Email me at anita (@) simplelife365.com and share what you do that makes stress at work easier to deal with.


NEXT: You might enjoy How to Keep Work Minimalist and Simple: 17 Strategies I Use.