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One of the defining characteristics of CPTSD is severe and persistent problems in affect regulation. In my first article, I wrote, “Affect regulation, sometimes called emotional dysregulation, relates to having strongly felt emotions, like overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief, and depression, that leave us feeling powerless to control them. The emotional outbursts, sometimes called emotional flashbacks, can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours and can be triggered by seemingly minor events that most people wouldn’t react to.” This kind of emotional eruption can have particularly disturbing consequences for the trauma survivor in the workplace. I have struggled with this tremendously, and it always seems to lead to feelings of shame, powerlessness, and a sense of being broken or “less than.”
My last article explored the concept of personal safety in the workplace as it relates to our biology. In this article, I would like to explore the idea of emotional safety in the workplace. We will define what emotional safety is, what role emotional flashbacks play in emotional safety, how emotional flashbacks are triggered, and how to manage those triggers.
Psychology Today says, “Emotional safety comes from within us. It is the “knowing” of what we’re feeling; the ability to be able to identify our feelings and then take the ultimate risk of feeling them… Emotional safety is a combination of willingness, courage, and action.” One of the challenges we have to overcome if we are going to progress in our healing journey is having the courage to allow ourselves to feel all the emotions related to our trauma. Many of us have spent a lifetime running from these feelings, covering them up, or trying to numb ourselves. It took me months to convince myself that I needed to learn how to tolerate my emotions related to the trauma I experienced. I had to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
This is a critical step in the healing process. Not only do we need to be able to tolerate all the emotions, but we also have to be able to identify them, which can be a tremendous challenge for trauma survivors. Often times we do not have labels for our feelings, and we might need to work with our therapist to learn that. I found that being able to put labels on what I was feeling was like learning a new language, but it was a relief to finally be able to communicate what I previously had no words for.
Emotional Safety in the Workplace
Emotional safety in the workplace is a different story. “Emotional safety in the workplace refers to a situation in which employees are able to share their thoughts and feelings with fellow employees, employers, and other people in the work environment. An emotionally safe workplace encourages employees to speak openly without worrying about what other people may say.” (https://advancedct.com/how-to-improve-emotional-safety-in-the-workplace/)
The ability to share our emotions with co-workers, managers, business partners, and employers is determined by several elements: our willingness to share with people in the workplace, the ability of co-workers to “hold space” for our emotions, and the safety of the environment.
One of the defining characteristics of both CPTSD and PTSD, according to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Disease (ICD-11), is the re-experiencing of the traumatic event or events in the present in the form of vivid intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares. In Pete Walker’s book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving,” he defines an emotional flashback as “intensely disturbing regressions [“amygdala hijackings”] to the overwhelming feeling states of your childhood abandonment. When you are stuck in a flashback, fear, shame, and/or depression can dominate your experience.”
Experiencing an emotional flashback in the workplace is extremely disturbing for the trauma survivor. One moment you are maintaining a purely professional demeanor, and the next moment you feel like a wounded child in the midst of your co-workers, business partners, or customers, and you may not know what triggered it. It is like someone pulling the fire alarm when there is no fire.
One of the things I want to avoid at all costs as a trauma survivor in the workplace is having an emotional flashback. To do that, we need to spend some time talking about and identifying our triggers.
In my previous blog, I talked about the sensors within our home security system that have been trained to pick up the slightest threat and respond automatically. As Threat Managers, it is our responsibility to analyze the data related to the activation of our alarm system to determine what is causing it. Self-awareness of triggers can help us predict and prepare for potentially upsetting events.
Definition of Triggers
Our sensors respond to stimuli in our environment, which triggers the response. “A trigger is an external or internal stimulus that activates us into an emotional flashback. This often occurs on a subliminal level outside the boundaries of normal consciousness.” (Pete Walker) It is something that “triggers” our alarm system.
To help identify our triggers, we can group them into several categories: emotional state, people, places, things, thoughts, and activities/situations. These categories can help us to organize the trigger data.
Workplace Trigger Examples
- Seeing someone who resembles a childhood abuser
- Experiencing the anniversary of an especially traumatic event
- Hearing someone use a parent’s shaming tone of voice or turn of phrase
- Feeling lonely, abandoned, disconnected
- Making a mistake
- Asking for help
- Feeling unheard
- Being talked down to
- Having to speak in front of a group of people
- Feeling tired, sick, lonely, or hungry
- Any type of physical pain can also be a trigger
Once we have identified our triggers in the workplace, our next task is to figure out how we are going to handle them. This leads us to identify appropriate coping strategies. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, a coping strategy is “an action, a series of actions, or a thought process used in meeting a stressful or unpleasant situation or in modifying one’s reaction to such a situation. Coping strategies typically involve a conscious and direct approach to problems, in contrast to defense mechanisms.”
Below are some examples of coping strategies you can try out. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will give you someplace to start.
- Take deep, slow breaths from your gut rather than your chest
- Start counting the number of red things in the room around you
- Go outside and focus on feeling the air and sun on your skin
- Rinse your hands with cold water or hold ice cubes until they melt
- Run your hands over a rough surface, like bricks or a tree trunk
- Fire up your iPod and sing along with songs you know
- Count backward from 88
- Address the feelings/events behind your trigger in therapy
- Write about your triggers and the emotions behind them
- Share your triggers in the community with other survivors, and allow them to help you work through the feelings and circumstances underneath the triggers
- I’m stronger than any trigger
- I deserve to be supported and helped when I feel sad and alone
- I am safe now, and the past cannot harm me
- I am lovable and deserve to be treated well
- I can treat myself with kind, and gentleness in these hard moments
- I am powerful
- I have many choices on how to cope with these feelings
- Listen to some music on your playlist
- Exercise with your music turned up
- Look out the window of your building down onto the street and observe what the people are doing outside
- Take a walk around your floor or to the restroom
- Text a friend
- Check your social media
- Make a cup of tea
- Use your favorite aroma therapy
- Pamper your body: put on some good-smelling lotion
- Meditate or pray
- Visualize yourself living your highest and best life — build that image in your mind and return to it often to fill in the details
Creating a trigger toolkit is a way to help us proactively manage triggers. When a trigger has hijacked your amygdala, our brains will go “offline,” and we will not be able to think through our options at that time. Creating a trigger toolkit helps us to identify our triggers ahead of time and give ourselves directions on what to do when it happens. This is our “in case of emergency” instruction manual.
Identifying Workplace Triggers
The first step in the process is to identify workplace triggers you already know about. Some triggers sneak up on you without your knowledge. We call these “ninja” triggers. It is OK if you don’t know all your triggers at this time because this list will continue to evolve through self-awareness over time. You may find that some things will no longer trigger you because of the work you are doing in therapy. That is great! Just remove it from the list, or better yet, you can leave it on the list and put a resolution date, which will remind you that you are making progress in your healing journey.
Identifying Appropriate Coping Strategy
The next step in the process is to identify the coping strategy that works best for each trigger. This is a bit of trial and error, and it will be different for each person. What might work for some people may not work for others. You cannot fail this task because it is a learning opportunity, or you can look at it like an experiment.
My guidance is to listen to your inner intuition. I believe we already know what we need at the moment. Try it out. If that doesn’t work, just note that on your sheet and try something else.
As you continue your healing journey, it is good to review your coping strategies occasionally to ensure they are effective. Remember, you are the Threat Manager, so you get to decide how to handle triggers and what you want to try first.
Sharing the Strategy
Once you have your trigger toolkit completed or drafted, consider sharing it with a trusted support person. There will probably be times when we are badly triggered in the workplace and cannot even read our strategies. This is when we need to rely on a trusted support partner, whether it is a spouse, co-worker, coach, friend, or boss (if you’re lucky).
There is no shame in reaching out for help. We all need help on this journey. None of us can do this alone. I employed the services of a trauma recovery coach, with whom I could text to help me get grounded and regulated again. That really helped me.
Questions for Further Consideration
- What are your top 3 triggers in the workplace?
- What happens when you are triggered in the workplace?
- What coping strategies have you used in the past to help manage triggers in the workplace?
Walker, Pete. Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A GUIDE AND MAP FOR RECOVERING FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA (p. 145). Azure Coyote Publishing. Kindle Edition.
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.
Hi Cyndi, Thank you for this post. It resonated with me because I had a massive emotional breakdown at work this week which has not happened in years. A colleague got angry with me (for no reason) and used one of my “trigger words”. I had no defence and couldn’t stop going down that spiral no matter how much I tried to get myself under control. Everything you wrote in your article are actions I have tried or used often. I have been successfully avoiding triggers and meltdowns for a long time but this time was different It lasted for hours and I had to reach for professional help to get back in control. One “kind word” later and reassurance from a trusted person, I felt better. Living with Complex PTSD is a rollercoaster. One minute you are feeling great and then… BAM! You are not so great. I understand why I reacted this way this week and am working on a new strategy plan.