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Trauma is an invisible scar, echoing into the present even when the horrific nightmare ended. You may be at home or in the office when your mind pulls you back into an agonizing past, unable to escape the sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

From the unexpected shock of a car accident to the heartbreak of losing someone close, the aftermath of trauma can remain, locking your mind and body in a relentless state of alert.

What is trauma?

Trauma is an event or circumstance that threatens your existence or shatters your sense of security— whether it’s the destruction of a tornado or the enduring pain of an abusive relationship. Trauma can touch you directly, like facing a robbery, or indirectly by witnessing a harrowing event or hearing about a loved one’s excruciating incident. Those who deal with distressing situations and details in their profession, like first responders or caseworkers, can also find themselves grappling with its lingering effects.

What is PTSD?

Once linked exclusively to war’s aftermath with terms like “shell shock” and “combat fatigue,” PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is now understood as a universal impact of trauma, touching lives far from any battlefield. About 1 in 11 will face a PTSD diagnosis in their lifetime, often wrestling with feelings of irritability, heightened alert, and a pervasive sense of imminent danger. 

PTSD is akin to your body’s stress response stuck in overdrive. An intense event triggers your fight or flight; for some, their nervous system struggles to return to normal. Marked by nightmares, mood disturbances, intrusive memories, hypervigilance, hyper-reactivity, and emotional numbness or detachment, PTSD can affect anyone.

Do I have PTSD?

Distress is a natural response to unnatural circumstances—most signs of trauma surface within one month. However, sometimes symptoms can lie dormant, only to appear years later. While it’s normal to grapple with nightmares, mood dips, and helplessness after confronting extraordinary circumstances, these feelings should subside with time. But if they persist beyond a month, intensify, or disrupt your day-to-day activities, it might indicate PTSD.

To receive a PTSD diagnosis, symptoms must last for more than a month and must cause significant distress or issues in your daily functioning. The symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories:

Avoidance

  • Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, like people, places, activities, things and situations.
  • Avoiding thinking about the traumatic event.
  • Avoiding talking about what happened or how you feel about it.

Mood changes

  • Ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame.
  • Memory loss of important aspects of the traumatic event.
  • Ongoing negative and distorted thoughts and feelings about yourself or others.
  • Distorted thoughts about the cause or effects of the event that lead to wrongly blaming yourself or others.
  • Feeling detached from others.
  • No longer enjoying activities you once did.
  • Being unable to experience positive emotions

Intrusion

  • Intrusive thoughts, such as repeated, involuntary memories.
  • Nightmares.
  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event, which can be very vivid and feel real.

Hyper-reactivity

  • Irritability and angry outbursts.
  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior.
  • Being overly watchful of your surroundings (hypervigilance).
  • Being easily startled.
  • Problems concentrating or sleeping.

PTSD in the professional realm

The workplace can become an unexpected minefield for someone battling PTSD. Subtle cues—like the abrupt bang of a closing door, the mechanical whirr of equipment, a distant siren, or even a heated discussion—can spiral into vivid reminders of traumatic episodes. The particular cologne your boss wears may remind you of an attacker. When such triggers occur, memories and feelings of fear, helplessness, and horror come flooding back. This can make concentrating, handling stress, retaining information, making decisions, and interacting with coworkers difficult. The resultant hyper-vigilance can make you jittery, leading to snap reactions or unwarranted outbursts. You might lean into solitude, wary of social interactions, fueled by mistrust or sheer discomfort.

Navigating the workplace with PTSD can be challenging, but with the right strategies and support, you can create a work environment conducive to calm. Here are some steps and consideration:

1. Practice self-awareness

  • Recognize your triggers and signs indicating you might be overwhelmed or anxious. Awareness helps you prepare mentally to remove yourself from the situation and deploy self-soothing techniques.

2. Openly communicate

  • If you’re comfortable, consider disclosing your PTSD to your supervisor or HR. They may offer accommodations or support.
  • Clearly define your boundaries. For instance, let coworkers know if you’re uncomfortable with physical touch, like a pat on the back.

3. Seek accommodations

  • Some potential accommodations include a quieter workspace, flexible work hours, telecommuting options, frequent short breaks, or written instructions.
  • Understand your rights. Laws in many countries protect employees with disabilities, including PTSD. 

4. Manage triggers

  • Personalize your workspace. Items like noise-cancelling headphones, plants, or personal photos can make the space feel safer and reduce potential triggers.
  • If certain tasks or situations are triggers, try to delegate or manage them in a way that reduces stress.

5. Build a support system

  • Having trusted colleagues can make a significant difference. Even just one person who understands and supports you can help.
  • Consider joining a support group where you can share experiences and coping strategies with others who have PTSD.

6. Practice self-care

  • Incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily routine, such as deep breathing, grounding exercises, or mindfulness meditation.
  • Take breaks when needed. A short walk or a few minutes of solitude can help reset and calm your mind.

7. Stay organized

  • Use tools like calendars, to-do lists, and reminders to manage tasks and reduce anxiety about forgetting responsibilities.
  • Break tasks into manageable steps and tackle them one at a time.

8. Seek professional help

  • Regular therapy or counseling can provide coping mechanisms and strategies specific to your experiences and triggers.
  • Consider asking if your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides counseling or therapy.

9. Educate your colleagues

  • If you’re comfortable, provide coworkers with resources or information about PTSD. This can foster understanding and reduce misconceptions.

PTSD is more than a diagnosis; it’s a testament to survival. As you navigate the path to recovery, know that you are not alone. With persistence and the right support, you can step out of survival mode and thrive again.

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