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How your childhood trauma can show up in the workplace

We all experience trauma at some time in our lives, and it affects everyone differently. The way in which we absorb that trauma has a direct impact on how our lives evolve following the terrible event. We might be left with specific challenges if the trauma is not handled immediately, leaving us feeling trapped, stuck in a repetitive cycle, like a failure, or even like we have lost a part of our identities. Let’s look at some of the ways unresolved trauma might manifest.

Many people struggle to acknowledge what trauma is still unresolved from their past because we often don’t know these things unless we experience triggers. For example if you previously dated someone who experienced addiction then you might have a biased view on people facing addiction in general and possibly perceive them as weak minded individuals, liars, individuals incapable of change or have other common biased opinions. This perspective may only be brought to light when you experience a trigger e,g at work you might find that you begin to view a customer in a different light once you learn about their addiction to drugs and/or alcohol making you not trust them or want to help them to your best ability. Similarly, if you have a biased view about people experiencing addiction and you come to learn that your co-worker was a recovering addict once, you might then subconsciously look for ways to discredit their work or analyse their methods more than other co-workers in attempt to find a deficit due to the mistrust. This can be problematic because not only would you be working out of alignment with your own (and your companies) values, morals and ethics but had you not experienced that initial damaging trauma, you would view the world, yourself and the people around you in a very different, more optimistic, fair and open-minded way.

Oftentimes unresolved trauma can make us think that things are a threat to our safety when they might not be and this can trigger our fight or flight mode. An example of this could be if someone has experienced domestic violence before, they might begin to interpret certain behaviours or phrases (that other people wouldn’t think twice about) as intimidating and as if they could be a threat to safety. A common scenario where this may happen is if someone talks while using their hand gestures a lot and in response, the individual with unprocessed trauma may flinch out of fear that they were on the brink of being physically harmed. Another example could be if a client was being very rude, the individual with unprocessed trauma may fear going to their car alone after their shift ends out of fear that they may be physically harmed or followed home from that client.

Other examples within the workplace may be:

  • Individuals who felt powerless and like they were being controlled during traumatic moments might then abuse their power and control over others (when they are in a position to do so) in attempt to re-gain this loss of power from the past
  • Individuals who felt that their voices were not heard during traumatic moments of their life might then ensure that their voice is the only one that is being heard by overcompensating for their lack of acknowledgement in the past.
  • Individuals who felt unseen during traumatic moments of their life might then take up an excessive amount of tasks to prove that they are worthy of being seen – this can lead to burnout, moodiness, and an array of other consequences
  • Individuals who were bullied by a certain group of people may then get triggered by those who fit within that same stereotype/category based on their physical features, tone of voice etc and could begin treating co-workers or clients in that category unpleasantly in attempt to redeem themselves from when they were bullied

One thing that is important to keep in mind when thinking of any of the examples listed above is that people often have automatic responses to their triggers, therefore they may not even be aware that they are reacting in this way. In opposition however, some people are aware and still continue to react this way rather than addressing their unresolved matters because it may provide instant gratification and while this may be a short term reward it will not help anyone in the long run as this pattern of behaviour will continue to repeat itself until the root cause of the problem is addressed. These misconceptions in verbal and non-verbal cues due to triggers and unresolved trauma can begin impacting other domains of life as these traumatic memories come up again and again, tricking us into thinking that history may repeat itself and causing us to reacting automatically (out of the body’s fight or flight responses).

Here are some techniques that people often find helpful when attempting to overcome unresolved trauma:

  1. Learn about trauma in general – e.g. the impact it has on the brain, physical health, mental health, our epigenetics and the different levels of trauma. Additionally you might like to learn about common signs of unresolved trauma, self-help techniques and other professionals perspectives on trauma recovery. You might like to do this through watching documentaries, listening to audiobooks or podcasts and reading.
  2. Identify your triggers – e.g. you might like to come up with a method to keep track of all the things that trigger you, unpack why and where they stem from, record how you responded to these triggers and make an observation of any common behaviours, patterns or themes so you can reflect on this.
  3. Develop coping mechanisms – e.g. you might want to establish some strategies that help you cope such as journaling, self-soothing techniques, deep reflection techniques, a high quality self care routine, positive affirmations, techniques to re-frame your thinking and change the narrative you tell yourself and much more.
  4. Engage in therapy – e.g. you might like to do some research around what kind of therapy is best for the type of trauma that you have and schedule some appointments e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, psychodynamic therapy, humanistic therapy, group therapy, a mixed mode of holistic therapies and many more.
  5. Highlight the life lessons – e.g. you might like to reflect on all the times in your past when you overcame adversity and acknowledge how those times taught you valuable life lessons that still benefit you now and apply this same technique to your current situation to understand what life lesson this current situation is teaching or will teach you and how this will be to your advantage.
  6. Confide in someone you trust – e .g. you might like to de-brief with someone you trust enough to support you along your journey to mental wellness. The more support, the better.

Come books that have been my personal favourite when learning about trauma are:

  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk MD
  • It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn
  • Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
  • Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk
  • Overcoming Trauma through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper
  • Journey Through Trauma by Gretchen Schmelzer
  • Trauma and Memory b y Peter A. Levine PhD and Bessel A. van der Kolk
  • The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Unresolved trauma can significantly reduce a person’s quality of life. This is why, if a person is processing trauma, it is critical that multiple levels of wraparound support are available to help ease and smooth the journey. Despite how difficult it may be to see the light at the end of the tunnel while on this trip, all of your efforts will be rewarded when you are able to live a life free of triggers.

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