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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects about 5% of U.S. adults, which accounts for around 13 million people annually. While we often associate PTSD with war veterans, it can actually stem from various distressing life events. These include instances such as molestation, rape, miscarriage, losing a loved one to suicide, the death of a parent at a young age, a major car accident, witnessing a mass shooting, and or enduring horrific natural disasters.
When I refer to trauma, I’m describing intense emotional devastation that surpasses the ordinary pains of life. It penetrates deep into the soul of a human being and occupies their mind for a very long time.
I have a client who discovered that her husband was having an affair with her best friend, someone she had known for 17 years. The impact of this revelation on her mental state was truly traumatic. She was experiencing insomnia and couldn’t sleep at night.
Eventually, someone at the emergency room recommended she seek my assistance. This incident went beyond a typical disagreement or marital dispute. It left her utterly devastated—and so was the other husband.
These experiences exceed what I would consider “normal hurt”. At some point in life, we all experience disappointment due to hurtful remarks or challenging circumstances. However, traumatic events consume your entire being. You can’t focus on anything else.
Navigating repressed trauma
While some people are fully aware of their traumatic experiences, others may struggle to acknowledge or confront them. For example, those who had a parent commit suicide early in their lives often push the event away as if it never occurred. Then they carry on with their lives, but unresolved trauma can eventually manifest as physical issues such as stomach problems, backaches, headaches, migraines, or insomnia.
Some people are apprehensive about addressing suppressed trauma because they fear that reopening old wounds may render them unable to cope with daily life.
While I can’t guarantee specific outcomes, I do believe—from my many years of experience as a therapist—that trauma is not something that can be forgotten entirely. However, it can be resolved to a certain extent, enabling people to lead constructive lives. It doesn't have to dominate their thoughts or hinder their relationships with others.
These aspects can be resolved. I have no doubt about that. People can emerge wiser, more loving, and with a stronger sense of purpose.
Trauma coping mechanisms and their consequences
Unfortunately, not everyone is receptive to therapy, and many traumatized individuals attempt to avoid or numb their pain instead. It’s often said that alcohol is the drug of forgetting. By consuming multiple beers or glasses of wine, individuals can trigger the production of feel-good chemicals in their brains, temporarily alleviating their emotional distress.
However, the relief is short-lived. The next day, they wake up to find their pain intensified. Initially, it may provide a sense of well-being, but ultimately, it contributes to deeper feelings of depression.
Avoiding trauma can lead to the development of addictions, such as overeating, gambling, or pornography. These addictions serve as detours from addressing the primary issue and essentially say, “I can’t handle the pain, so I will direct my attention elsewhere.” As a result, individuals carry the burden of trauma and struggle with different addictions.
How to support someone affected by trauma
As mental health professionals, one of the worst things we can do is address trauma head-on without the client leading the conversation. You must guide people into dealing with trauma subtly and slowly because it’s so frightening.
Throughout my years of experience, I’ve worked with many women who have experienced the trauma of rape. These individuals often hesitate to open up to someone like myself, a stranger, about their experience. Therefore, it’s essential to approach the topic gradually.
Usually, it begins by discussing the distress they’re facing in their lives, such as sleeplessness, chronic indigestion, migraines, or unexplained back pain. Then you unravel it a bit at a time until you arrive at the event where it started.
I’ve found that when individuals confront these traumatic events constructively, the symptomatic issues they’re experiencing tend to dissipate over time. Insomnia ceases to be a problem, physical pain resolves, and their blood pressure often decreases as they experience relief.
When trauma shows up in the workplace
It’s not uncommon for trauma to show up in the workplace, where individuals may encounter abusive or inappropriate behavior from their managers or colleagues. It’s important to regularly encourage employees to be open and honest about issues.
HR departments play a vital role in this process by regularly reminding employees to come forward if they experience any problems. Furthermore, it’s beneficial for HR departments to have established relationships with vetted psychologists and mental health professionals to whom they can refer employees.
Many studies have shown that individuals who experience bullying or ongoing trauma in a workplace setting often hesitate to speak up. Fear of job loss can be a significant deterrent, particularly for females.
Imagine you’re a single mother with three kids, your boss is harassing you, and you’re making just enough money to support your family. Is HR going to protect you? You’re not really sure.
In an ideal situation, HR would serve as an open forum, proactively informing employees, “We’re here to support you. You don’t need to tell us what happened, but we’re here to direct you to the right people.”
How to support an employee with PTSD
When an HR or team leader becomes aware that an employee experienced trauma, it’s important to approach the situation sensitively. Instead of addressing the topic directly, it’s best to gently let the employee know that your door is open without pressuring them to discuss anything significant.
They could say, “I want you to know that I’m here for you, and if you ever feel like talking over a cup of coffee, I’m available. We don’t have to discuss anything specific, but please know I’m here to listen.”
Listening becomes a key factor in supporting someone who’s been traumatized. Go at their speed, not yours. Don’t interject. You don’t want to move through their defenses, which can make them fall apart very quickly. Inexperienced psychologists often move in too quickly, and the person disintegrates because they’re not ready.
Building trust is paramount in these situations. Like having a longtime friend who supports you, there’s an existing rapport and trust. The same applies to the relationship between a therapist, HR professional, or team leader and the individual seeking support. Trust must be developed first to create a safe and supportive environment for people to open up at their own pace.
Post-traumatic growth can offer hope for the future
Trauma can be defeated, and growth can result from doing the work to resolve the past and develop hope for the future.
One of the benefits that can come from suffering is wisdom. We can learn more about ourselves and others. We learn to assess and discern who to form close relationships with, who to maintain distance from, and which work environments are supportive and which are not.
By actively working through and discussing their suffering, we gain valuable insights. We become more knowledgeable about human nature and emotion. We become wiser, and our lives are guided by those learnings going forward.
I have a client whose young son died from cancer while she was working in the corporate world. We spent a lot of time together when he was close to death. As she learned more about herself and gained wisdom about loss, suffering, and how to overcome it, I encouraged her to get a graduate degree in psychology.
Today, she has become one of the most successful psychotherapists in the area. Why? Because she understands pain. She understands loss. She understands heartache. She’s been there. So she can face it with another individual.
She is never going to forget her son. She will never stop missing him or longing for him. But she has acquired so much wisdom and insight from dealing with this loss and sadness, and through it, she has so much to offer others.
Trauma softens the heart when it’s worked through
There’s a lovely term called post-traumatic growth, which refers to the positive psychological changes that can result from working through trauma. When we face difficult moments head on, it forces us to reevaluate our lives, values, and how we see things. Yes, it can be painful, but we start to discover an incredible well of inner strength and resilience in that pain.
As time passes and we reflect on what we’ve been through, we start to rebuild our lives with a new appreciation for the present, a deeper sense of purpose, and a greater ability to understand and connect with others.
Post-traumatic growth shows us that no matter how tough things get, we always have the power to heal, grow, and find meaning in our experiences.
PTSD is one of many mental health struggles your employees may be dealing with. Learn what it’s like to live and work with anxiety and panic attacks, and discover how you can help support employees facing these issues in the workplace.