What Will Smith Can Teach Us About Stress in the Workplace 

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. 

Step Off Set for a Moment

If you choose to step away, a good tool for calming yourself down when you’re feeling stressed is the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. Start with some deep breaths and then name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. You can repeat it as many times as necessary, finding new things to notice for each sense every time.

 When you’re done, take a moment to ask yourself, “What about this situation upsets me?” If you can pinpoint the answer to that question, then imagine what it would feel like if you could overcome this difficulty. Maybe you would feel liberated or empowered or confident. Find the words that work for you and then close your eyes and work to summon those feelings as they relate to the current challenge at hand. Finally, when you step back into the situation, carry those new feelings with you. Learning to hold them can take practice, but the more realistically you can imagine them, the easier it becomes to make them a reality.

Method Acting Is Key

Our daily lives are full of experiences that give us a foundation for imagining the future, which is why understanding our emotions is a vital part of self-soothing. When stress is writing the script for your imagination, you might find yourself acting like someone other than the person you want to be. Taking a moment to step back and reevaluate your emotions can help you find the power to rewrite that script. Ask yourself why you’re experiencing those emotions and if there’s another way to see the situation in a more productive way. Focusing on the best possible outcome of a problematic situation and truly embodying how that feels even if it hasn’t happened yet is a powerful practice for managing workplace stress. 

Of course, you’re not alone if you feel like you can’t connect with the person you want to be. Learning to self-soothe takes lots of time and energy, and sometimes, you don’t realize something is triggering your stress until it’s too late. Suddenly, you’re encouraging someone else to go for the promotion so you don’t have to face possible rejection, or you’re yelling at a coworker for making a small mistake because you don’t want the blame to fall on you. Even worse, you’re walking off the stage after having slapped the host of a nationally broadcasted awards show because he insulted someone you love. These moments happen to everyone, but repeated occurrences can lead to burnout, even if you love your job.

If you feel like you’ve thrown yourself into every self-help and meditation book and things still aren’t changing, there is no shame in asking for help. Workshopping is a part of every creative process, and mental health is no exception. The good news is that there are tools to help you erase those stress mechanisms so you can become the main character in your life. If you want to learn how to quickly master your stress so you can stop worrying about it being triggered at the least opportune moments, make sure to stay tuned for part two of this blog!

Ready to start making positive changes and avoid overreacting at the worst times? Book a rREST Session.