How to overcome the “What ifs”

I have been talking a lot about managing our triggers in the workplace because it is a big struggle for most trauma survivors. Hypervigilance and anxiety can be exhausting. It should not be surprising that some of us have been unable to maintain stable employment because we don’t have the energy to cope in the workplace every day.

Experiencing anxiety can be emotionally intense and debilitating for most people, but for trauma survivors, the intensity of the anxiety is multiplied and complicated by the volume of traumatic records in their threat database. We invest a lot of energy to ensure that we will never again experience the painful things from our childhood. It is completely understandable because why would we want to go through that again, right?

I want to spend some time unpacking this so we can overcome this legacy effect of trauma and continue moving toward finding a fulfilling and satisfying career.

Tracking the Layers of Anxiety

One of the reasons anxiety is so challenging is that it is complex and has many layers. From a psychiatric perspective, anxiety is “a mental condition characterized by excessive apprehensiveness about real or perceived threats, typically leading to avoidance behaviors and often to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and muscle tension.”

I want to step back to connect some dots from a previous blog (CPTSD in the Workplace: Personal Safety). In this article, I developed the concept of a threat database (hippocampus) that records all the situational data related to every situation we experience in our lives.

When we have a traumatic childhood experience, that record is captured in our database. All the metadata about the experience is stored along with that record, i.e., situational, interpersonal, emotional, and response data. When we experience something for the first time, we don’t know what to expect. However, after a painful experience, our natural inclination will be to avoid having that experience at all costs. This is the first layer of fear. We are afraid of having that experience again.

As part of everyday life, when we experience sensations in our bodies similar to those captured as part of the traumatic record, it will recall or retrieve the rest of the data associated with that record…i.e., the emotion of fear. When we repeatedly access that same record, we start to associate the sensations in our bodies (heart rate, muscle tension) with the emotion of fear.

Have you ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs and classical conditioning? Pavlov did an experiment with dogs where he took an unconditioned stimulus (food) that created an unconditioned response (salivating) and paired it with a neutral stimulus (bell), which in itself created no response in the dog. Once paired with the unconditioned stimulus during the conditioning process, the neutral stimulus elicited the unconditioned response (salivating) without the unconditioned stimulus (food).

Classical Conditioning Illustration

This is what happens to us too. We have a traumatic experience (unconditioned stimulus) that elicits an unconditioned response (fear). The neutral stimulus (body sensations such as heart rate and muscle tension) is paired with the traumatic experience during the traumatic memory retrieval process (triggers/emotional flashbacks) until the sensations alone elicit the conditioned response of fear.

When we hear that bell ringing, we anticipate the traumatic experience happening again. That is the second layer of fear, called anticipatory anxiety. We become afraid of the trigger because the trigger is associated with the trauma.

Anticipatory Anxiety in the Workplace

You knew I would return this to our careers and the workplace, right? Anticipatory anxiety creates many career challenges for the trauma survivor.

Pre-employment challenges. Survivors who were rejected or suffered emotional abuse from their caregivers may experience difficulties creating a resume because they believe the gremlins who are telling them they are not wanted and don’t have much to offer an employer.

Another common challenge is the interview process. A perceived power differential of the interviewing process (this person has the power to hire me or not) can be highly triggering for a trauma survivor, especially if they have been triggered before.

Employment challenges. One of the challenges I’ve experienced recently is getting a new manager. The anticipatory anxiety is tied to questions like: what is she going to be like, what is her management style, what is she going to think about me working from home as an accommodation…should I tell her, is she going to appreciate what I do, and many more questions. Whew…makes me anxious just thinking about it.

Another employment challenge can be performance reviews. This one will really throw survivors for a loop. Those pesky gremlins will ask questions such as: does my boss think I’m doing a good job? Am I going to get “spanked” for doing something wrong? What kind of criticism am I going to experience, or does my boss even like me?

Job or career changes can take anticipatory anxiety to another level. Imposter syndrome can rule our thinking. What if employers don’t think I can do that job? What if I’m not as good as I think I am? Maybe my previous success was a fluke, or I lucked out.

Pre-retirement challenges. What am I going to do with myself when I retire? Will I have enough money to support myself, or will I be functionally poor? What will I be if I’m not [insert work identity]? What good am I? So many questions…so many unknowns…so much anxiety.

Overcoming the “what-ifs”

Even though anticipatory anxiety can feel intense and may have limited our ability in the past to move forward, we can overcome it. Here are a few suggestions to help you move through it:

  1. Regulate Yourself — The first step is ensuring we are regulated and grounded. If we have been triggered into an emotional flashback, we need to bring ourselves out of it before moving forward. Pete Walker has a great tool to help you get started.
  2. Track Your Triggers — I would venture a guess that this is not the first time this situation has triggered you. It helps to track our triggers, so we can better plan our coping strategies. I created a Trigger Tracker Template to help you with this process.
  3. Stay Present— Our ability to stay present in the “now” is a critical component for overcoming this. When we remain present, we can discern between our past trauma and what we are experiencing now.
  4. Shift Your Mindset — This is easier said than done. We need to capture all of the gremlin thoughts and bring them into captivity. I do this through journaling. Capture every one of the thoughts about people being against you, you won’t be able to…, things won’t work out…you know what I’m talking about…and put them on paper or record them somehow. I have a friend who doesn’t like to journal, and I suggested she create a voice or video journal. Whatever medium you choose, get those gremlins out of your head. Once you evict those non-paying tenants from your brain, you will have more space to operate in.
  5. Get Curious — With curiosity, begin to entertain the possibility that things might work out or that you ARE strong/smart/brave enough to take the next right step. Instead of imagining all the negative or bad things that could happen, try to imagine it working out or all the good things that could happen.
  6. Take the Next Right Step — Even a baby step is progress. You don’t have to do the big thing, just the next right thing. Just one step can propel you to the next step and then into gaining momentum.

As always, you are not alone on this journey. I would love to accompany you on your courageous path to healing. Contact me to schedule your free discovery call.

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