01/13/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

How to Fend Off Work (and Life) Freak-Outs

What better way to learn a valuable, humbling lesson than by having a total, unadulterated freak-out? Having two of them.

I would know.

Though each of my recent "incidents" was... special... they actually both pointed to the same, spectacularly dramatic lesson about keeping ourselves successful and happy... and sane.

I present to you now: a tale of two freak-outs.

Freak-out #1: When "Alone Time" Goes Horribly Wrong

This one happened just a few days ago. I'd recently returned from vacation and, in my infinite scheduling wisdom, had given myself a whole lot of time upon my return -- almost a full week -- to catch up on work. I'd planned no meetings, no lunches, no nothing.

The problem was I'd pretty much caught up on everything before leaving town, and kept on top of communication while away. And, it turned out, there wasn't much new stuff to deal with.

At first I decided it was just more bonus downtime. Those first few days I took myself out to lunch, read my book, Facebooked more than usual.

Soon, however, I got less motivated, putting aside even silly tasks like the dishes, my butt increasingly planted firmly on the couch. It was getting hard to breathe. My little cave of solitude was closing in.

By the fourth day I was a hot mess. I called Hubbie just to hear his voice and as the phone rang felt the loneliness and sadness bubble up. The second he picked up I started sobbing.

That's when I realized how much the space around me mattered. I needed to leave the cave, to be somewhere with more action, more connection... more people.

Freak-out #2: When "Family Time" Goes Horribly Wrong

The exact opposite scenario came a few years ago, during a holiday visit with the family in New York.

Now, let me say for the record (and not just because Mom reads this blog) that my family is amazingly loving and supportive. Visits are filled with my favorite meals, carefully thought-through gifts and lots of hugs.

They are also filled with nights spent sleeping in my old childhood bedroom and days spent living complicated dynamics... the kind that just happen with family.

Perhaps you know what I'm talking about.

Needless to say, things got tricky. As the days progressed I found myself getting cranky, impatiently snipping at family members and trying to sneak away to catch my breath... but there was nowhere to go.

Finally, after an innocent comment from my sister about my particular food choice, I lost it. I began yelling to be left alone, to be without critique for just a few hours. I ran up the stairs to my old room, with its flood of memories and thin door (which I slammed. Hard.).

That's when I realized how much the space around me mattered. I needed be somewhere quiet, safe, and neutral; a place where I could regroup and calm myself.

By now you've gotten the message, right?

Space matters, and most of us don't think about it enough. It's not as simple as extroverts needing bigger, louder spaces and introverts needing smaller, quieter ones.

It's about knowing our needs in different situations: personal and professional, times of the day and week. It's about knowing when the energy of others feeds us and when it might sap us dry.

Our space sets us up for success or failure (or freak-outs). We must assess, then plan as best we can to put ourselves in the right space at the right time. And if we can't, we need to figure out how we'll deal with it.

Which is what I did.

Two days after freak-out #1 I signed up for a co-working space and moved my budget around to get in there several hours a week... helping me be the successful, happy professional I knew I could be.

As far as freak-out #2? This year, my first trip back since the unfortunate episode (and after a carefully worded explanation to Mom), I stayed in a hotel, helping me be the loving, happy daughter and sister I knew I could be.

Sure, more freak-outs will undoubtedly come perhaps soon. But at least I've figured out where to go when they happen. And that's just good for all involved.

This week...

Know that space matters... perhaps more than you think. Determine where you thrive, and when. Recognize it will change depending on your needs.

Then make your plan and celebrate your newfound space sanity.