Is Workplace PTSD waking you up at night?

You may not think much about waking up during the night, however if it becomes a regular occurrence, e.g. 4 out of 7 nights for a couple of weeks, then you may want to investigate it further. If normal sleep doesn't return after a week then you are starting to embed a new sleep pattern which could lead to unhealthy consequences. 

What is Workplace PTSD?

PTSD, the acronym for ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ is most commonly associated with war veterans and jobs that encounter a lot of distress or trauma. PTSD is used to describe the lingering physical and emotional after effects of a shocking, destabilizing event. However, since the term was invented our understanding of trauma has grown. We now know that this a human response to an uncommon experience/s, and it is not a sign of weakness, rather an adaptive response to a traumatic experience or series of traumatic experiences.


Trauma is an umbrella term and includes one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, which affect everyone differently. What I have learned as a psychotherapist and counsellor is that office workers underestimate the impact of situations that the body and mind interpret as traumatic, yet nobody died or lost a limb. I am frequently hearing about situations at work that are leading to trauma responses in the body, yet my client has minimised the incident or series of incidents and hasn’t recognised it as a traumatic experience which prevents them for processing it.


The commonly known trauma responses are fight, flight and freeze. Fight is when you stand your ground and fight for yourself either physically or with words. Flight is when you leave the situation or cut connection with someone, you previously had connection with. Freeze is having no response, in an effort to become invisible. The fourth response to trauma, which is less known, is fawning. Fawning is when you recognise that the previous three responses are not appropriate or will not change the situation and as a result you decide to stay and smile your way through it, hoping to mitigate further trauma and for it to end as soon as possible. People who use this strategy often are known as fawners. Fawners use people-pleasing behaviour to feel secure in their relationships and deescalate potential problems, trying to blend in at all costs.  


This fawning response is by far and away the most frequent one I hear about from clients when clients recount events of workplace bullying, conflict with peers and lashing out behaviour by stressed out colleagues.  Workplace PTSD flourishes in toxic workplaces.    


Workplace PTSD or workplace induced trauma can arise out of many situations including racism, bullying, harassment, poor work-life boundaries and job insecurity to name a few. All that is required is the sense of not being able to respond in a way that the person would have liked to respond.


Symptoms of Workplace PTSD

While there is a reluctance to link clinical PTSD to workplace PTSD, the symptoms of workplace PTSD are similar. Workplace PTSD can manifest as anxiety, hyper-reactivity, exhaustion, depression, emotional numbing, self-isolation, lack of focus, irritability, negativity, avoidance of work, intrusive thoughts, and self-blame.


While you experience the trauma at work the symptoms can be experienced in all contexts. Other symptoms that show the brain is trying to cope with the experience may include nightmares, anger, flashbacks, insomnia, and/or mood changes.


Clients experiencing workplace PTSD report an increasing fear as they approach their place of work and are hypervigilant at work in an effort to avoid the same or similar traumatic event. They also experience sensations akin to panic attacks, or chest pains, muscle spasms, faster heartbeats and unhelpful self-talk as they get closer to their place of work or closer to the time when they are going to interact online or over the phone with the person who traumatised them previously.


Recovery of Workplace PTSD

Often the solution to dealing with workplace PTSD is to change departments or job. This can be a helpful strategy for the immediate term however it doesn't allow you to process the experience and your associated emotions. It is unrealistic to expect this to be enough for your symptoms of workplace PTSD to go away. Nor will they go away on their own as the traumatic event cannot be undone, yet it can be diminished with effective supports and tools. Especially as the trauma that evoked those symptoms can be triggered again. The goal of seeking support from a suitably qualified professional should be to minimise the impact of the trauma with the appropriate supports and self-efficacy strategies. Living and thriving when you have workplace PTSD is absolutely possible.


The 5 stages of Workplace PTSD recovery

Moving through the 5 stages of Workplace PTSD recovery will be unique to each person and experience.

Stage 1: Emergency stage
During this stage your response to everything around you will be intense, and your anxiety will be elevated. This is often when you may feel the need to fight or flight even when you fawned at the initial experience.

Stage 2: Numbing stage 
 In this second stage you may want to play down the experience or deny your emotions that opportunity to express themselves. It is common in this phase to explain the situation away or accept blame for what happened. All of these strategies prevent you from acknowledging how you feel about the incident.

Stage 3: Intrusive/Repetitive stage
It is often in this stage where you realise that you are ‘not over’ the incident and you start considering getting support either privately or via your work Employee Assistance Provider (EAP). If you’re not there yet, chances are someone who cares about you will point out the need for you to get support.

You may find that despite your best efforts you are now experiencing difficulty sleeping, mood swings and flashbacks. It is not uncommon in this phase to wake after 3 hours of sleeping approximately between 1am and 3am for no apparent reason.

Stage 4 – Transition stage
This is the stage where you start to recover from your PTSD. It requires you move to a new level of acceptance and understanding of what happened to you. It is at this point where you can acknowledge and start to address symptoms, and you can adopt a much more positive outlook.

Stage 5: Integration stage
During integration you successfully learn and implement coping strategies to address and overcome your PTSD symptoms. This stage may take some ‘trial and error’ before you feel confident applying your new strategies without support.


While I have illustrated 5 stages, they aren’t linear and you may cycle between them as your healing process unfolds.


How Workplace PTSD affects your work

You may feel like you have it all under control and that nobody can see any real changes in your productivity or how you’re behaving. However, your change in sleep patterns can impact your concentration and make it hard for you to pay attention at work. You may also use more energy to stay organised and work to deadlines, let alone arriving at work on time.


Your desire to isolate yourself from others may lead you to start to experiencing problems in your intimate and close relationships if you do not address your workplace PTSD.  


Employees who experience unresolved workplace PTSD have higher rates of workplace absenteeism, higher number of medical visits, an increased likelihood of unemployment (or underemployment), lower hourly pay, and over time an increased difficulty in meeting the demands of the workplace.


Workplace PTSD and sleep

Trauma can affect your sleep architecture, which means it changes how your body moves through sleep cycles and stages. While not much is known, what is known is that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is most affected. REM Sleep is important for storing memory and processing emotions and as result you may find your dreams during this phase are more fantastical and disturbing. If this does happen, it is likely your brain attempting to integrate your traumatic experience.  


Insomnia is one of the most common sleep problems related to workplace trauma and it can resolve itself on its own in the majority of situations.


Research shows if you are able to sleep naturally after a traumatic event, it is likely your intrusive trauma-related memories are lessened and are less distressing.


If you are experiencing sleep problems as the result of a toxic work environment or a traumatic experience at work, I encourage you to seek external professional support for two reasons; one, to ensure processing of the event, and secondly, to identify if you need to learn additional skills to prevent it from happening again.


If you would like to explore working with me on your sleep problem, please book in a confidential call where we can discuss working together. 

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