Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where we sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening.  Today we’re talking about staying calm at work.

Hey Muffle, 

I work with a lot of high-strung people, and I’m finding that their stress trickles down to me.  How can I keep from getting worked up at the office?
Like Reagan, but for Anxiety

You frame this as a work question, but this is broader than that.  The same issues apply if your friends, partner, or family are, like, totally harshing your buzz, man.  It’s particularly troublesome at work because it can affect your own performance, which only leads to more stress, but it’s a pretty universal issue when people with different temperaments or different reactions to adversity are thrown together.  So, that’s the good news: everyone deals with this!

The bad news is that it can be really, really hard to fix, and it’s not likely that you’ll ever deal with it entirely.  If the people in your office are trembling bundles of cortisol, all herbal tea and mindfulness exercises in the world won’t change that.  And it’s always going to be stressful to be around people losing their shit!  But there are things that you can do to limit their effect on you.

First, if possible, try to remove yourself from the stress-sphere.  It’s not part of your job description to absorb other people’s bad vibes, and you’re perfectly justified in politely excusing yourself from an unproductive anxiety spiral masquerading as a conversation.  

If it’s a colleague with whom you work directly, and particularly if it’s your supervisor, this can be harder, but you can try to steer the conversation in another direction, or push them to think more positively or rationally about the situation.  For instance, if the stress of the moment is over a deadline, you can help the person focus on a step-by-step approach to getting the work done rather than getting overwhelmed by the project as a whole.  You can also point to past success to provide reassurance, e.g., “Last time we did this report, Jessica loved it.  I’m sure we can get her a product she’ll be happy with this time, too!”  Calm, rational discussion that questions the assumptions behind the stress cycle can chill everyone out and put a new perspective on the situation.  Unfortunately, the kind of people who get caught up in stress like this aren’t usually too open to changing their mindset so quickly, but even putting these words on the table can at least signal that you’re not a willing passenger on this train to panic-town.  

If you can’t leave or alter the stressful situation, then your focus has to be internal, instead.  Try to take a deep breath and remember that someone else’s crisis isn’t necessarily yours.  How do you actually feel about the work you have to do?  Is it under control, and are you comfortable that you’ve done your part?  If so, (and it sounds from your brief letter like it is,) then great!  The stress in the air ultimately has nothing to do with you, and while it’s bothersome, it doesn’t have to be your problem.  It’s like hearing a baby cry: it’s not a great experience for anyone, but it doesn’t mean you have to cry, too. 

If there are things you should be doing but haven’t to get whatever you’re working on across the line, well, then, maybe your colleagues are right to be kinda stressed out.  If that’s the case, then maybe a little bit of a freak-out might be good for you, too.

Snark and tipples,


Got a question for Muffle? Send it to mufflemayi@gmail.com.