Sometimes, managing the symptoms of CPTSD and developmental trauma seems like a full-time job, but I already have a full-time career. How can I make it through the workday without totally falling apart? How can I continue to perform at work when I keep getting triggered? Have you ever asked yourself those questions? I frequently ask myself some of those same questions.
It hasn’t always been that way for me, though. For most of my career, work has been my happy place, where I felt the most competent and confident. Sadly, that is not true for me at the moment. In 2019, when I was 51 years old, I had a zip file of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse open up on me. These memories completely overwhelmed my nervous system and wreaked havoc on my ability to perform my duties at work. Not that I didn’t know that I was abused, but until that time, the most painful of those memories were locked away, and I didn’t have access to them. When they flooded my nervous system, I went from a high-functioning overachiever to not functioning at all. My happy place became a place of fear and insecurity. I knew nothing about trauma or what was happening to me. I was falling apart, and I thought I might be losing my mind or going crazy. One thing was obvious; I did not have the coping skills to deal with whatever this was. I was terrified of everything and everyone, but I was mainly terrified that I would lose my job because I could not perform. I worked so hard to get to my position, and I loved the work I was doing, but it seemed to be slipping through my fingers.
When I was at work, I isolated myself from everyone, even the team I was leading, because I was struggling to function. My mind was still being flooded with horrific memories from my childhood; I had a lot of emotional flashbacks and re-experiencing. My brain was offline because of being constantly triggered. I was a mess. I felt isolated and alone like I was on a cruel island, and no one else understood what I was going through. I could not let people in because I built titanium armor around myself for safety over the years. The armor works great to keep the bad stuff out, but it also keeps the good stuff out, like comfort, companionship, and community.
Finding a good trauma therapist was the first step in getting the support I needed, but even that was not enough. Because I was struggling to perform my job, I felt like I had to talk to my manager about what was going on. It took a ton of courage to have that conversation, and I remember feeling sick to my stomach as I entered her office. I told her what happened over Christmas break and how much I was struggling and that I understood if she felt like she needed to hire someone else to do the work. She told me she hired precisely the right person for the job because I was capable and qualified, and still was, in her eyes. Then she asked me, “How can I help?” I have never heard sweeter words than those in my life. She believed in me and was willing to help me get through this. Just remembering that conversation from over three years ago still brings tears to my eyes. When you feel broken, less than, and inadequate, there is nothing more powerful than having someone believe you and believe in you. That conversation gave me more courage to let more people in, albeit cautiously, and I soon learned how critical community is to healing trauma. When we experience relational trauma, we have to heal in relationships. For those who have experienced developmental trauma, we’ve learned to turn away from support, which inhibits our ability to heal. The braver I got, the more willing I was to share my story at work, the more people I found that had the same struggles.
After my manager left the company, I learned how important it was to have a person I could reach out to for support when I was triggered at work. After two years of working with my therapist, we took a little break, but I was doing much better with my manager’s support to help me get regulated when triggered by something at work. When she left the company, my attachment wounds were ripped open, and I did what I always did, I withdrew deeper into myself and withdrew from the support I desperately needed. I spiraled so severely that I was dissociated for three months before a friend/coworker did an intervention on me and saved me from myself. Of course, I went back to therapy after that, but there was still this void of support in the workplace. My therapist couldn’t be my only support system. I needed more support, especially at work, where triggers abound. I got a trauma recovery coach to help support me like my manager did, which helped me. I started thinking about other people like me who need the same support but don’t have the resources to hire a coach. What do they do to help them make it through the workday?
This Journey is Hard
It is challenging, and we cannot do this on our own. We need each other. This work has kicked my butt on multiple occasions, but I’m still here, working hard not to allow my past to negatively impact my present and future and make work my happy place again. That is what I want for all of you, as well. I know I am not the only one that struggles at work or even maintaining a job because of constantly managing the symptoms of trauma in the workplace. While there are a growing number of resources on CPTSD and various treatment modalities, there is a shortage of information that talks about how we can manage our symptoms in the workplace. As trauma survivors, we already have a ton of obstacles we have to face, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be successful and thrive in whatever field we choose. I shared my story with you so you can see why I am so passionate about helping other survivors overcome the effects of trauma in their workplace.
I will be writing a series of articles called “CPTSD in the Workplace” to bring some light and heat to the struggles we face in the workplace. I think many, if not most, of our managers and company leaders, do not know what we go through to make it through the day.
Here is a list of topics I would like to cover:
- Impacts of CPTSD on Performance
- CPTSD: A Hidden Disability
- Managing CPTSD symptoms in the workplace
- Trauma-Informed Management Practices
- Building a support system
- Employee Resource Groups: CPTSD
- Career Development and CPTSD
- CPTSD Self-Advocacy within the Workplace
- Identifying workplace triggers
- Intra-day support
- Strength Finder: Identifying your CPTSD superpower
- CPTSD and Threat Management
- CPTSD and Performance Reviews
- The impact of organizational change on CPTSD survivors
- CPTSD: Trust vs. Mistrust
- CPTSD and Dealing with Authority
- Emotions at Work
- Dealing with deadlines
- Changing jobs
- Changing managers
- Dealing with company policy impacts
- Establishing safety in the workplace
- Dealing with a new diagnosis in the workplace
- Courageous Conversation
- Creativity and Safety
I desire to:
- Empower trauma survivors to thrive within their workplace
- Educate business leaders about the effects of trauma on employee performance
- Identify and advocate for solutions that work in the workplace
I will be sharing from my lived experience working for a major financial corporation, but I want to hear from you and what you experience in your industry. I want to hear about what works for you and what doesn’t work for you.
In this article, I have introduced a topic not being discussed today, how to manage trauma symptoms within the workplace. There are bodies of writings and research about trauma healing modalities or trauma from the workplace, but nothing that pulls the string on the continuity of care for trauma survivors. Sometimes, having therapy once or twice a week is not sufficient, and that’s OK. That doesn’t mean that you are broken, defective, or inadequate; it just means that you have different needs. You can do other things to help yourself and advocate for yourself to get what you need. I want to empower you to do that. Stay tuned for more articles on the subject. Let’s grow together.
Believer. Leader. Learner. Advocate. Writer. Speaker. Coach. Mentor. Triathlete. Encourager. Survivor.
Most of all, I am a fellow traveler on the rocky road called, Trauma Recovery. My mission is to minimize the effects of trauma for survivors in the workplace.
I am really interested in C-PTSD & trauma in general
This blog is a great place to learn more about both of those things. There really is so much to learn. Happy learning.
Wow I’m in such a similar position. Thank you for your words. I was waiting for the part where you had to take a break from your job/career, but you managed to keep going?
This blog post is an important topic, thank you!
I was able to keep working with support…a lot of support. It was difficult and there were times when I wasn’t that productive, but as usual, I survived :).
I was recently in a domestic violence situation with my kids father who I have known since I was 13, I’m 30 now we stayed away for 5 years, and I decided to give him a chance/opportunity to meet his family again. Everyone can change, I reckon anyhow, but at the same time.. it’s a choice at the end of the day. Not everyone makes that choice. I worked at my job since Nov. 2019 and was top five of the company for over half of that time employed, it is a very large company. I had to miss quite a bit of work due to the d.v. there were two incidents; second time he broke into our home and we were sleeping I ended up getting physically assaulted. My job explained when I come back, I would not be remote anymore & they would bring me back into office, which I was not able to do. Legal, kids, mental health(kids&self), safety,CPS, d.v. advocate & legal, CPO(filed on my own)..I got a letter from my doctor under the ada reasonable accommodations so that I could continue to work at my job and to do so remotely where it fit all of our schedules, especially with the current situation. After that it seems like they really retaliated- they brought me back asap, as soon as got eqiupment back, tried to keep in office schedule, then proceeded to suspend me my first day back from absences/stats off or low & only reason was due to the d.v./had all proof. In the end I ended up losing my job because of a no-call no show even though I have been in contact with them almost every day if not twice a day and asked for FMLA several times as well. I feel like I was treated very unfairly because again I was top five in the company for over half of my time there I made $17 an hour, I was really good at my job, it’s just crazy how people try to hold things against you, I don’t know what the ADA did to make them upset or if they just need the guys that smart maybe but I just needed some time I couldn’t even think or process or anything my PTSD came back full force and probably worse than ever honestly
Thank you for writing this! This is my first time on the site and I was looking for support after a huge trigger at work today. I’m in sales at a new job and it was my monthly review with all male managers which really triggered me…and I grinned and bared it through the trigger to get through the meeting and have been a mess all day. I even thought about quitting. I was feeling very lonely so this posting helped A LOT!! I am really excited about the series you are writing!! Its so important. I finally feel seen!
Rekha, I am so sorry to hear that you were triggered at work. Unfortunately for survivors, this is a common occurrence. You are not alone. It happened to me just yesterday, so I totally understand. I’m glad this post helped you in some way. I would value your feedback on any upcoming articles, as well.
Thankyou for your article and showing us your plan for more topics!!
My situation is similar except I fell apart at 55. I guess as we get older, its hard to stuff it down.
Work has been a huge challenge so left my First Responder career.
L, I have seen childhood trauma erupt in so many people in our age group. It’s like we get to a certain point and the lid comes off of everything we’ve been carefully guarding our whole lives. Working as a First Responder as a trauma survivor must have been so difficult. I’m sorry you had to leave it, but it is totally understandable.
Thank you! This will be a great series. I recently moved into a supervisory position and have barely been able to control my controlling tendencies. My high stress industry recently tipped me into a crises, which I’ve been in for weeks. While I’ve generally “kept it together” at work, it blew up on me at home and I’ve potentially destroyed my marriage because of it. I cannot tell my co-workers, many of them half my age, and I’m in the supervisory position. I’ve hinted at my trauma in a joking manner like “don’t make me get out the old me…!” or “this rewiring my brain thing is a full-time job”. These are usually timed out with a sarcastic conversation and evoke some general chuckles. It’s a newer job and as I feel out the general situation, I’ve only found a couple of people who might be safe to share with, both in understanding and in appropriate equal positions (as opposed to those I supervise). I have a desk job and rely so much on youtube nature videos to help me survive some days. And then there’s always the option of leaving over lunch, getting in my car an crying in the parking lot down the street. I like my job – I very much dislike the internal trauma that makes my job difficult.
BNelson, moving into a position of authority and being responsible for other people, can be so triggering. I’m sorry you are struggling. You are NOT alone. Have you considered getting a trauma recovery coach to help you through this rough patch so you can get yourself a little more grounded? It really helped me handle the excess stress of a management position.
Thank you for writing on this topic! Your description of what it was like to be at work while experiencing the effects of your trauma resonates with me in a profound way. I have felt so vulnerable, defective, and alone since returning to my workplace in person in September, 2021. At first it was terrifying, overwhelming, and disorienting. I felt so unsafe all day, every day. I know now I was having emotional flashbacks and living almost entirely in fight, flight, freeze. Then I started to dissociate, although I didn’t know it at the time. In December I found a trauma therapist. First we worked on grounding strategies to use when triggered. Then I was diagnosed with complex ptsd in January, which was validating but scary and sad. My workplace is the place I experienced a series of traumatizing events that dredged up childhood relational trauma. Although my abusers are gone now, it has been very difficult to continue to work in the same place. I look forward to reading more. Thank you again for helping me feel understood.
Jill, I’m so sorry that you had to struggle as you did without the support you needed. This is the whole reason I am writing and working to develop programs to help trauma survivors in the workplace. Nobody should have to go through that alone. You are not alone. We are here with you and for you. I am glad you found a trauma therapist that was able to help you develop grounding techniques, that is a good start. Stay tuned for more upcoming topics that are relevant to the workplace.
Relieved to read your article. My heart is therefor everyone who is struggling on their trauma recovery journey with addiction/unable to work but it’s really good to hear from someone for whom a lot of life is working well but who is still profoundly affected and to be able to talk about that.
Kate, I’m so glad this article was a bit of encouragement for you. Sometimes trying to cope with the pain of trauma can cause us to turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain and that is so understandable. We do a lot of different things to tolerate the pain. Recovering from trauma is a really difficult process, but you are worth the effort. You are not alone in the struggle.
Oh geez this is so helpful to find. In my situation my manager is my trigger. My supportive boss left and I was moved to being managed by a toxic individual. In 6months I spiralled into needing to go on STD. the scary thing is that many members of her team have had to take a leave as well.
I have a huge fear now of never working in my career again, having to go back to the trigger (because I’m too afraid to start something new and that’s assuming anyone would ever hire me).
I JUST found a trauma therapist after months of looking. am trying to trust the process and hope that if I can’t work again in my career maybe there’s hope I will find something else that I love.
I just turned 51 on Tuesday and two months ago my life came to a violent crash and burn.
I think “I wish I’d known, I would have dug deeper to get the right support, but sadly support for this kind of trauma is so new. Nothing really existed before 10years ago and even then, “exposure” and “reliving” those experiences only causes (and caused me) more harm. I tried, I tried so it’s not my fault. I didn’t “wait” too long or avoided anything. I feel like we’re still in the midieval times of medicine where it comes to mental health.
To your point…yes, where do I find a trauma coach while I’m working and how can it be affordable. I didn’t even know that was a thing.
Thank you thank you thank you for starting this source of information.
Jenni, I am so sorry you experienced that re-traumatization at work. Not only did you lose a valued support system, but you also had to deal with a toxic boss. You said that others have left that toxic environment, so I hope you can see that someone else’s bad behavior is no reflection of your own ability to thrive in your career.
Leaving a toxic work environment can be really scary even without trauma, but for trauma survivors, it can stir up those old negative cognitions of “I am not enough” or “What is wrong with me?” The fact that you are alive today and have made it through your trauma, tells me you are resilient. Another proof point of your resilience is that you took the initiative to find a trauma therapist to help you. That is huge. None of us has to do this alone. Often, there is a time in our lives when we come to a crossroads and we have to decide if we are going to continue “surviving” or if we are going to gather up our courage and face into the pain of our past, with the hope that we will come out the other side better than when we came in.
As for your question about a trauma recovery coach…I am a trauma recovery coach who specializes in working with trauma survivors who are struggling in the workplace. You can reach out to me via my website: http://www.cyndibennettconsulting.com if you are interested in working with me. However, the CPTSD Foundation also has a new trauma-informed coaching resource available if you would like to look into that. The choice is yours. You are in control of your career and what happens next. I look forward to hearing many good things about how you’ve overcome this obstacle and are thriving in your career of choice.
Dear Cyndi, I feel grateful and relieved to have found your story and your resources. I am 53 and my really big crash and burn crisis happened when I was 49. It is really something to see that there is something about this age that increases vulnerability. I now realize that I had the same challenges of emotional instability and constant struggle with work (at home too) even before the crisis but I just forced myself through them and covered up the suffering. I did not understand what was going on though. I thought it was a normal way to live and experience work and I just needed to hone some skills.
I started therapy for my CPTSD and am currently working with an excellent Sensorimotor psychologist. I made a lot of progress, however they have not yet added up to make work easier. If anything, the processing of material always invites the next more difficult material to come up. So I cannot benefit functionally from my progress. My triggers are essentially constant. People, men (I’ma woman), physical discomfort (which of course is a given when sitting in front of a screen). But most days I do not make it to the work place. I can work remotely so I do most of the time. But really, I hardly do unless there is pressure. Even at home, the mere thought of responsibility brings up so much emotional anguish that getting to the point of starting to work is a major struggle and often when I do, my mind refuses to take in the information. It’s tough. I always worked part time, but now I can’t even maintain my former 24hr a week schedule. Most weeks I manage between 5 and 15 hours. I receive a lot of understanding from my colleagues, my crisis was impossible to hide so it is pretty well known. But I do not have the kind of support you describe. I am scared to reveal that level of need plus I don’t even know what specific support would help me. I already get so much flexibility with my schedule and I’m lucky and grateful for that. I wish I knew what more to request. Because obviously I need something. Maybe there really isn’t something that an employer can offer.
I use a lot of resources too, my self compassion skills and self empathy skills are really good, I pause for my distress but I often use up my energy in that phase and by the time my system calms, I’ve used up my cognitive capacity, I feel tired or sleepy or hungry etc. so I end up going in circles.
I still feel like this is the right career for me, and I want to work from the bottom of my heart. I often have told my colleagues that I am so much better and want more work, but that is always temporary. I am now losing faith and fight the temptation to make such proclamations to my coworkers. But I’m getting really worried. Therapy is expensive, I need to work to have the resources to pay for it but I can’t work very much. And I have a family who need me to carry my fair share.
Thank you for your work and I’m looking forward to exploring your materials.
Noemi, thank you so much for reaching out. I am so glad you found a good therapist to help you process your trauma. I know how hard that is and how slow it seems at times. For me, doing therapy and trying to work at the same time was extremely difficult, and there were days that I was not so functional. If I can give you any hope, it would be that this is not going to last forever. The courageous journey you are on is an investment in you and your future success. We are in the process of developing a new program to support trauma survivors with work-related challenges. I think it will be another month or so before it is completed, but keep on the lookout for the announcement, and perhaps you can participate in the pilot program. You are not alone. Just take one day at a time.
This is a great series topic. Thanks for starting it. I get triggered at work frequently as I have a high stress job managing large projects. My trigger is being pushed into a corner where the person involved does not allow a way out (think narcissist). I am hoping to learn some additional skills from these posts.
Irene, I totally get that. As trauma survivors, it makes sense that we would feel triggered by situations where we feel “trapped.” I have experienced that myself. It brings us right back to our abuse where we were trapped. I have found it extremely empowering and helpful in these situations to ground myself in the present by acknowledging the feeling (all our littles want to be heard) and also reminding myself that this situation is not the same. I am an adult now with skills, a voice, and the authority of my position that provides me with more choices than I had then. My littles are not equipped to handle these kinds of situations, but my adult self is more than capable of facing into it…and so is your adult self. You did not get to the position you are in of managing large projects because you are a pushover. You got there because you are excellent at what you do. You have the ability to set boundaries on narcissists and also suggest alternatives. My experience with situations like this is that the person that is pushing that hard could also be in a trauma response and they may feel threatened by the situation. Once you get yourself grounded, you may be able to be more curious about what is going on for them. You’ve got this!!!
I am so glad I found this article. I have been struggling with managing cptsd at work, well and out of work. I was diagnosed with it just three years ago although I believe it’s been something I’ve experienced symptoms of since I was 4. I too forgot about the trauma I experienced until I was 18 and I didn’t know if what I thought was coming back as flashbacks was true or something that I was creating in my mind, until my sister asked me a question one day confirming she too had remembered what I’d been through at that age while at a babysitters house. Since then I’ve been through at least 6 other instances that come back as haunting flashbacks unexpectedly. I struggle with dissociating at work off and on but the toughest thing is trying to just hide how I feel with a smile just so others don’t have to know or find out about my condition. I feel like I live a double life, when I step outside I paint a smile and act like nothing is aching underneath but deep down I feel scared, tired, overwhelmed, blankminded, shutdown – sometimes I just don’t feel too great. I hate feeling like no one knows the real me but would they want too anyway if I’m not the happy person that they know? I don’t know. In my past workplace i went through something very traumatic and the police were even called to work because I was receiving threats through my work email and HR voicemails. But what my work never knew is the extent of how much trauma happened behind the senes that they did not know about. I would start shaking sometimes if I got triggered or my mind would go completely blank when having a discussion about something with my coworkers. And when they just look at you weird you can’t even blame them because yeah trauma does not make much sense to people who have not encountered it or been educated on it. Because I’ve had a traumatic experience directly related to work i feel that it effects me a lot in the workplace even though I work at a different job now. It hurts but I’m hopeful it will continue to get better as I learn more and grow stronger.
V, thank you for reaching out. You are not alone. Oftentimes, as survivors, it is easier for us to wear armor, or a smile, to hide how we really feel because we are afraid that if people saw inside us, they would reject us. I think this is a valid fear based on our lived experience. It takes a lot of courage to come out of hiding and to show up as your authentic self, but we need to make sure we have people who genuinely care about us and are safe before we take that important step. Showing up as your authentic self in this safe, virtual space is a really good start. You are in good company. Let’s grow together.
Hi Cyndi, thanks for this post. I am a survivor like you and often triggered at work. I came across this post today from a twitter feed. I know there are lots of us out there, working despite suffering from CPTSD. It is not easy when triggered and not being able to talk about why. Not all employers are understanding and trustworthy to help. I feel very alone at times when work is busy and I bury my feelings of hurt and pain and just carry on. I have found some trusting colleagues and started opening up. Few people close to me know about my book – a memoir of my childhood. It’s almost like I lead a double life. The true me and the person I show people.