Photo by Miłosz Klinowski on Unsplash

When we Google personal safety in the workplace, the results will be related to environmental issues related to safety, such as OSHA, etc. IGI Global defines personal safety as “a basic need to be free of physical harm, aggression, harassment, and victimization.”

For the trauma survivor in the workplace, the topic of personal safety is much more than that. For many of us, personal safety is a bit of a fairytale. We might not feel safe no matter what environment we are in. This article will explore the priority of safety, the biology of safety, and the role we play in managing threats to our personal safety.

The Priority of Safety

In 1992, Dr. Judith Herman published her book, “Trauma and Recovery,” building on the work of Dr. Pierre Janet, who conceptualized a phased approach to trauma recovery. The phases of recovery proposed by Dr. Herman were: 1) Establishment of Safety, 2) Reconstructing the Trauma Story, and 3) Reconnection with Ordinary Life.

According to Dr. Herman, “Trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control; the guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control to the survivor. The first task of recovery is to establish the survivor’s safety. This task takes precedence over all others, for no other therapeutic work can possibly succeed if safety has not been adequately secured.”

I am going to pull the prioritization of safety forward to the workplace, as well. I am not suggesting we do therapeutic work in the workplace unless you work as a mental health practitioner; however, no successful occupational work can be accomplished if an employee has concerns about their personal safety.

Dr. Herman believes that knowledge is power for the trauma survivor, so let’s dive into the biology of safety to help us understand what is happening in our bodies related to feeling unsafe.

The Biology of Safety

We first need to know that we were designed to survive. The will to survive is hardwired into our DNA, and it is one of the first things that form in the womb. It is at the very core of our being.

There is a lot of medical terminologies associated with our biology, but since I am not in the medical field, I will use terms that we ordinary folks can understand. Jesus used parables to communicate complex concepts to the people, and I will use that same strategy here.

When I think conceptually about the processes that happen in the body related to our sense of safety, I think about the alarm system of a house. There is the Threat Detections System, the Threat Response System, and the Threat Database/Algorithm. These systems work together to alert homeowners of a potential threat, so they can take some action to protect themselves and their families.

The Threat Detection System

The threat detection system in our bodies is our five senses: seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, and hearing. The body uses these interfaces to sense external information. Like the sensors of our alarm system, their job is to collect information and send it to the database.

The Threat Response System

In our home alarm system, there are built-in ways that the system responds to the information being picked up by the sensors. Sometimes there are motion detectors that cause floodlights to come on to bring some light on the subject. At other times an alarm might go off and signal our alarm company to call for help.

Similarly, our body also has a built-in threat response system called the Autonomic Nervous System. Built into this system are four automatic responses: flee, fight, freeze, and fawn. There is a hierarchy or logic related to these responses. The first choice is to flee. If we cannot flee, our brains automatically calculate our ability to fight against the threat. If we can’t flee or fight, we may freeze and hope we were not seen. When all else fails, we will fawn or play dead.

The Threat Database & Algorithm

From the time we are infants, our senses collect threat data and add those records to our brain’s database. Our responses to those threats are also recorded, along with the outcome. It is a call log of sorts. Our brains continue to learn as we grow. We learn when a particular response was or was not successful to a specific threat. We learn which response is the most successful, and that becomes our “go-to” response.

When we undergo trauma as a child, we have a lot of data in our database. This data helps to formulate what I see as an algorithm. An algorithm is “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations.” It is used in the automation of complex processes. If when we saw a lion, we had to calculate whether we could flee, fight, freeze, or fawn, we would undoubtedly be eaten every time. The algorithm speeds up the processing time by completing the if-then scenario based on the data in the database.

Many of you have experienced the working of algorithms from social media platforms like Facebook, Google, or even Medium. I recently ran into this situation on Facebook when I realized that everything in my feed was an advertisement. I no longer saw any updates from my family and friends because the algorithm responded to the click data in my database and told me, “Obviously, this is what you want to see.” Umm, no. It was a painstaking process to remove the ads so I could see my family and friends again, but I could do it.

In the same way, if an employee experienced trauma as a child from an overbearing, loud, and narcissistic father, their algorithm will be telling them to take the same action with their boss that they took with their father. Adjusting the response algorithm is a painstaking process, but it can be done.

The Threat Manager

This takes us to the role of the threat manager. That is the role the homeowner plays in assessing the threat to their home and property, and it is also the role we play in determining the threat to our own safety.

Assessing the Threat

Those of you who have dogs will relate to the barking that occurs when the Amazon delivery person comes to your door. Their keen sense of hearing detects a potential threat at the door, and they sound the alarm. I affectionately refer to my dog as my oversensitive nervous system because he detects threats that are not even there.

That happens with trauma survivors too. As a result of our trauma, our senses have been trained to pick up the slightest movement, noise, or potential threat so that we can ensure our safety. This happens in the workplace all the time. We find ourselves in similar situations or with similar people that remind us of our trauma, and it triggers our alarms to sound and our automatic response algorithm to fire. Sometimes we react to the slightest sound and have no idea what happened to set us off. That is so annoying and embarrassing. This sends us into a shame spiral that takes forever to get ourselves out of.

We must remind ourselves that our alarm system’s purpose is to keep us safe. We wouldn’t want to disable our home alarm system just because the sensors are not calibrated correctly, would we? No, we would like to fix or recalibrate the sensors or the algorithm so it can do the job it was designed to do…protect us.

Dr. Herman talks about the primary task of creating safety is restoring power and control to the trauma survivor. Many of us have experienced unrelenting trauma as a child and have “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is “a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.” This always reminds me of the baby elephant that is bound by strong chains and learns that it cannot break the chains. As an adult, the elephant doesn’t even try to break the chains because they learned when they were young that they couldn’t do it.

Responding to the Threat

As children, we did not have power and control over what happened to us, but we do now. We have all kinds of tools in our toolbox that we can use to ensure our safety. The key to being able to utilize our adult tools is to stay in the present. Sometimes when we are triggered, we go back to a younger version of ourselves in our mind, one that did not have the tools we have now. That part of ourselves is stuck in “trauma time.”

We have the power in the present that we did not have in the past. We need to anchor ourselves in the present, so we don’t lose access to the adult tools we have gained over the years. When we do this, we can create a delay in the automated algorithm, allowing us to choose whether the situation is an actual threat.

One of my favorite quotes is from Viktor Frankl, who was a holocaust survivor. He said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Staying present gives us space, which provides us with the power to choose.

Recalibrating the Algorithm

As we practice being present, the power to choose our response allows us to modify or recalibrate the algorithm from our childhood. This is what it might look like for us…we are in a meeting when something in the meeting triggers a physiological response (our heart rate increases, our palms get sweaty, and a voice inside our head tells us we need to get out NOW). We look around the room at all the people, none of which are related to our trauma, and we tell ourselves (in our minds) that we are having a trauma response, but we are safe now. Our body responds to the signal of safety and starts to calm down, and we can remain present and focused. As we continue to follow this pattern, the data about our response to this particular situation will be added to the database, eventually recalibrating the algorithm.

None of this is easy. It is a painstaking process, and you may not get it right every time, but give yourself some grace. You are trying to change an algorithm that has millions of rows of data aligned to it. It can be done, but it will take time and effort.

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