Navigating trauma and stress while working in a professional environment is difficult, but there are healthy ways to move forward.
Trauma and stress are often seen as taboo topics to discuss, especially in the workplace. As heavy as these subjects are, it’s important to create an open dialogue around them, as they impact people across all professions, ages, genders, and backgrounds.
An estimated six in 10 men and five in 10 women have experienced at least one trauma, and around 6% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.
Even if you personally don’t live with trauma, you likely know family members, friends, or coworkers who do. Trauma affects every facet of someone’s personal and professional life.
How can you deal with trauma and stress when working in a professional environment? How do you support a coworker impacted by trauma? Whether you are currently suffering from trauma or know someone who is, there are ways to help.
Veterans and Trauma
Veterans are more likely to experience stress and trauma than civilians, which is one of the many reasons VALOR, Apex’s military employee resource group, is so important. It’s a community for those who served or are currently serving as well as their loved ones. They provide veterans with a professional network and assist them during their transition back into civilian life.
The group recently hosted a webinar focused on trauma and stress. VALOR co-chairs Kenneth Harper (Account Manager) and Dylan Kodad (National Veterans Advocate) introduced the speaker, Danielle Gutierrez, a Department of Defense counseling psychologist and clinical social worker. She specializes in trauma and currently works with active-duty military personnel and civilians.
What is Trauma?
Gutierrez defines trauma as the response to a distressing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, and diminishes the sense of self and the ability to feel a full range of emotions.
Trauma manifests itself physically and mentally, and it affects everyone differently. Something that’s traumatic to you might not affect another person.
The three types of trauma are acute, chronic, and complex.
- Acute: A traumatic event that happens once, like a car accident or burglary.
- Chronic: Repeated, ongoing occurrences, like child abuse or a prolonged deployment.
- Complex: A series of varied traumatic events that takes place over months and years, like experiencing childhood abuse and then domestic abuse as an adult, plus a combat tour, loss of a friend, etc.
How does stress relate to trauma?
If your baseline stress is high due to trauma, your capacity for new stress is low. “Your natural capacity for stress is limited,” Gutierrez states. “A small, common event could make [your stress capacity] overflow, especially if you have trauma. The amount of pain-to-suffering processing that your brain is doing is high, so any amount of incidental stress will push you over the edge.”
Trauma affects every facet of someone’s personal and professional life.
Your kids calling your name over and over, a coworker microwaving fish in the communal kitchen, traffic on the highway—all normal events that might push you over the edge stress-wise because your brain is trying to work through trauma.
Trauma and Workplace Performance
Living with trauma can impact your career and coworkers. Individuals dealing with trauma may display the following behaviors at work: absenteeism, increased distraction, task avoidance, loss of motivation, and increased conflict.
Additional red flags include anxiety, fear, or forgetfulness. Other employees throw themselves into the job and overwork to avoid thinking about their trauma.
If your teammate is suffering from trauma and stress, you might notice him or her being irritable, moody, argumentative, or disengaged.
Facing Trauma Without Sacrificing Your Career
How do you tackle trauma and stress while remaining a good employee? If you feel comfortable, talking to your boss or HR is a good start so they’re aware of the situation. They can work with you to determine a plan of action to get you help without jeopardizing your job.
According to Forbes, “…organizations should view traumatic events not as issues to be ignored or, even worse, swept under the rug. Instead, they should be seen as an opportunity to reduce stigma, open doors to positive change and demonstrate that employee mental health is paramount to their workplace culture.”
Another suggestion is to join an employee resource group or meet-up club that aligns with your experiences—for example, if you’re a veteran suffering from post-combat PTSD, a veteran or military group could be a great source of support.
Above all, seeking professional help is the most important action. Gutierrez recommends going to therapy for specialized support. There are multiple forms to choose from, so if you tried a type and it wasn’t for you, consider trying a different one.
If you currently have a therapist but it’s not a great match, Gutierrez encourages you to find a new one. “Fire your therapist [if it’s not working]. It’s okay,” she says.
Types of Therapy
Therapy that trauma patients may find helpful, according to Gutierrez:
- CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy): Talk therapy that seeks to change unhelpful thought patterns and help you handle stressful situations.
- CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy): A trauma-focused method that teaches you how to evaluate and change upsetting thoughts.
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy): A popular modality for trauma treatment that involves moving your eyes in a specific way while you process memories.
- DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy): Focuses on emotional regulation, grounding, and mindfulness.
How do I find the right therapist?
“You wouldn’t buy a car without researching its specs, so don’t jump into a therapist relationship without looking into their credentials and knowing their specialties,” Gutierrez explains.
She suggests searching Psychology Today for therapists across the United States listed alongside their specialties, so you can see if they offer the type of therapy you’re looking for—EMDR, CBT, etc.
If money is an issue, research therapy collectives in your area, as they often offer sliding pay scales to help with affordability.
If you see a therapist listing online that seems to align with your needs, feel free to call or send them an email and mention the specific trauma you want to address. They should let you know if they can help or offer alternative suggestions.
If you’re ready for therapy yet, Gutierrez recommends the following books to get started on your trauma-healing journey:
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
- Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro
- Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet G. Woititz
How do you help someone experiencing trauma?
If your spouse, family member, coworker, or friend is displaying symptoms of trauma, what do you do?
Gutierrez suggests gently talking to them and asking if there’s anything you can do to help. Approach it with support and say something along the lines of, “I value you and I’m concerned about you. Are you okay?”
“Their kneejerk reaction will likely be to say they’re okay,” she says. “But you don’t know what seeds you’ve planted for the future. It’s important that you consistently offer support and validate their experience without shaming or judging them.”
If you’re currently experiencing trauma and stress or know someone who is, healing is a process that won’t happen overnight. “Brains are slow and don’t react to change well,” Gutierrez states. “It takes a long time for your brain to cognitively recognize [the traumatic event is] over and now you’re safe. You need time to transition and process.”
Trauma and stress are complex and nuanced, but with patience, the right tools, and professional support in place, you or your loved one can find a way forward.
National Center for PTSD: The leading educational center of excellence on PTSD and traumatic stress.
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies: ISTSS seeks to contribute to the health and resilience of people in the face of traumatic events with educational materials.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Free and confidential emotional support to people in crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text 988 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
Veterans Crisis Line: For veterans, service members, National Guard and Reserve members, and those who support them. Call 988 and press 1, or text 838255 to connect with a counselor.
Military Connection: The go-to site for veteran support in the military community. They work diligently to connect users with the veteran support they need.
Apex Veteran Redeployment: A veteran redeployment initiative that has helped thousands of former military personnel transition to new tech careers.