Medically reviewed by Murray Zucker, M.D.
We often think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as something that only happens to combat veterans and people who have been in war zones. But in fact, it can happen to anyone who has experienced or witnessed a terrifying event. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the number of people with PTSD, including frontline workers, medical staff, family members, and those who suffered from the virus. The prospect of returning to work and adjusting to the new normal may raise anxiety levels for many.
PTSD is a psychiatric diagnosis that can be triggered by many types of traumatic events, including being the victim or witness of a crime, a car accident, or a natural disaster; or, being threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury. In the U.S., it's estimated that PTSD affects nearly 4 percent of adults every year, and one in 11 people will be diagnosed with it in their lifetimes, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
People with PTSD can experience recurrent and obtrusive disturbing memories, flashbacks to the traumatic event, nightmares, and emotional distress. This can lead them to adopt coping strategies to avoid the people, places, and activities that remind them of the event. Other symptoms can include negative thinking, difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, irritability and anger, being easily startled or frightened, detachment from friends and family, and self-destructive behavior.
“Post-traumatic stress shrinks our tolerance for managing stressors and remaining emotionally regulated,” says Yena Hu, a certified trauma recovery coach who works with complex PTSD survivors. She adds that a triggering event can cause a fight, flight, or freeze response, pushing you to withdraw, dissociate, or feel anxious and angry. These events, which can be anything from a sound to a conversation topic, Hu says, can overpower the nervous system and hijack your executive functions, like reasoning, emotional control, and time management.
PTSD and the Workplace
Unfortunately, PTSD symptoms can come crashing down at any time, including when you’re on the clock. In the workplace, that can mean “poor concentration, poor working relationships, memory problems, anxiety, fear, overreactions to situations that trigger memories, panic attacks, and absenteeism,” says Brian Wind, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Tennessee Colleague Assistance Foundation.
However, it's possible to work through difficult moments in the workplace with grounding techniques and active coping skills you can practice at home. Here are six PTSD coping strategies and mechanisms that can help you remain productive and develop meaningful professional relationships.
1. Accept and Acknowledge the Trauma
PTSD frustratingly interrupts life, leading many people to avoid places, situations, or people that trigger symptoms. The National Center for PTSD suggests active coping, which starts with accepting the impact of the trauma and taking action to reduce its effects in everyday life.
Try to remember that recovery isn’t a one-and-done deal. Triggers will arise, but you can be gentle and open with yourself to successfully work through them no matter where you are. Active coping lays a foundation for confronting symptoms, so you can work (and play) without PTSD holding you back.
2. Step Away for Deep Breathing and/or Meditation
Both Hu and Wind suggests practicing slow, deep breathing to reduce your heart rate and bring down stress levels. Sometimes, a few deep breaths will be all you can manage, but “walk away from heated discussions and come back to talk to your co-workers when you have calmed down,” suggests Wind.
Try taking five minutes to do a short meditation session. Meditation of various types, from mindfulness to compassion meditation, have been shown to improve emotional control, reduce stress, and improve decision-making skills.
3. Ground Yourself Using Your Senses
PTSD pushes your mind into the trauma of the past. Sometimes, you need a focal point to pull yourself back into the present. Hu suggests using your senses to ground yourself physically and mentally.
Identify one thing you can see, smell, feel, hear, taste, and touch in the moment. Go through each sense in your mind or say the name of the object out loud. The focus it takes to identify and feel each sense grounds your mind and body in the here and now, where the trauma is no longer present.
4. Shake Things Up
Hu also suggests body shaking to snap your mind out of the traumatic memory. Stand up and shake your body for anywhere between 30 seconds to a few minutes. Moving the body releases stress and regulates the nervous system.
If a good shake isn’t possible, use other movement for a similar effect. Take a quick stroll to the water foundation or walk up and down the stairs. Move your body to refocus your mind and thoughts.
5. Use Headphones to Create Your Own Personal Space
A hectic work environment can make it hard to relax and calm the nervous system when you feel anxiety, flashbacks, or other PTSD issues bubbling to the surface. Put on headphones to create some personal space. Be proactive by putting together a relaxing playlist that helps soothe your nerves and lower your heart rate.
6. Limit Work Hours Outside of the Office
Technology and work-from-home policies provide all-hours access to work stress. Give yourself permission and space to separate from your professional life. Everyone needs time to relax, recenter, and recreate. As much as possible, limit your work time to normal office hours. If you work from home, create boundaries with specific work hours and a designated workspace.
Practice different PTSD coping techniques outside of work to identify the ones that are most helpful to you. That way, when you get triggered, you'll have a metaphorical toolbox of active coping skills ready and waiting. In time, you’ll learn your triggers and how best to cope with each one. That knowledge helps you acknowledge your trauma without letting it control your life.
If the symptoms continue to interfere with routine functioning or feel intolerable, reach out to a professional with specific training in PTSD for help. The following organizations are available to provide more information and help:
- Anxiety & Depression Association of America
- PTSD Alliance
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Center for PTSD
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Originally published on Happify Daily