While van der Kolk says that those who experience one-time incidents of trauma as an adult overall tend to recover more quickly, those who experienced trauma at the hands of their caregivers—what he calls “developmental trauma”—have deeper, more lasting impacts as a result of their trauma.
“Your brain develops in the context of the environment that you live in,” he explained. “If very early on, you learn that people are going to hit you or that you’re going to see violence, you develop a brain that is adapted to dealing with it. You learn to shut yourself down, or you learn to yell all the time when there’s any sign of danger. It’s an almost animal-like reaction of coping somehow with unsafe caregiving systems. That is really the main source of trauma in our culture.”
Dr. van der Kolk shared that developmental trauma leads many young adults to join the armed forces to seek a source of refuge and find comradery, order and a sense of unity. And while our perceptions of trauma are colored by the culture we live in, meaning much of the research into the subject is placed on soldiers, van der Kolk points out that for every soldier hurt in a war, there are 30 children hurt at home. For example, there are two and a half million children whose parents are in jail, and millions more whose parents are addicted to drugs and opioids, and every day in the U.S. over 40 children lose a parent to gun violence.
That’s not to say that new instances of trauma slow down after childhood. “About one out of four kids gets hit too hard by their parents, but about one out of three couples engage in physical violence,” van der Kolk says. “And about one out of five women have been raped or sexually molested.”
The bottom line is that there is a lot more trauma around us than we often realize. This includes trauma experienced by, if not ourselves, our work colleagues. Even if your colleagues likely don’t talk about it, many of the people who you work with, have likely worked through incredibly difficult and traumatic life situations, from childhood or later in their life. While we may never really know just what someone is going through, it’s not a bad plan to give people in your life a little extra patience, knowing they might be dealing with something below the surface at all times – that they may or may not be conscious of.
How trauma impacts our capacity and ability to cope
Now that we’ve identified some key sources of trauma that people may experience, what should we know about how it’s affected them? There are some core consequences that Dr. van der Kolk has identified consistently in his research of people affected by trauma and how it affects their day-to-day lives.
Difficulty regulating emotions
The first impact on those affected by trauma is a marked difficulty in regulating emotions. Dr. van der Kolk described how a person who deals with trauma might experience a difficult situation: “You become too angry, too anxious, too scared…you can shut down, and your own emotions become your enemy. People get triggered, and they may blow up at their co-workers. They may react to a minor frustration as if it’s a catastrophe, setting up very difficult workplace situations. Some people in the workplace [then appear to be] extremely reactive and difficult to deal with. And if you don’t know the source, you may actually yell at a person or you may punish that person for misbehavior. But in fact, they have difficulty regulating their emotions due to trauma.”
Another way he’s seen the effects of trauma show up in the workplace is through a difficulty concentrating and keeping their attention on tasks. It’s possible that work can be a refuge from a traumatic or abusive situation, but “by and large,” Dr. van der Kolk says, “when we get really freaked out, it’s very hard to concentrate on our work.” Likewise, someone who has experienced trauma is more likely to be constantly scanning the environment for threats to determine “Am I safe?”, diverting energy and focus away from the task at hand.
For those who have experienced trauma, some of their mental capacity is already spoken for trying to regulate their emotions and create an environment around them that feels safe. There’s less capacity available to deal with the day-to-day ups and downs. Think of it like starting your day with your phone and computer batteries half-charged. It’s easy for this to lead to quicker and more intense feelings of overwhelm at work.
Dr. van der Kolk also shared that those who have been traumatized tend to see the world through a smaller lens and in terms of power and dominance, which makes them constantly seek out safety and can negatively impact creativity. He shared, “If a kid feels safe, he wants to play, and children are immensely creative, and immensely imaginative…When you feel safe, you will explore the world and you will be open. And when you’re scared, you narrow down your attention to ‘will I get hit?’ or ‘will I get hurt,’ and so on” and will be more constricted.
As working adults, this can impact an individual’s ability to be open, creative and imaginative in developing solutions to challenges they face as well as result in being more reactive and self-protective when considering others’ ideas which could feel threatening. Further, the hypervigilance in constantly scanning the environment to potential danger that, as van der Kolk shared, is super-helpful if you’re a Navy seal pursuing Osama Bin Laden, but not so helpful if you’re focused on more creative endeavors at work.
Of course, traumas are not uniform; they affect people differently, and change the courses of our lives differently, too. In some cases, they can lead to workaholism as a coping mechanism. Some people use work as a way to get away from everything else and, like using alcohol or other drugs, numb themselves to what they are feeling. But Dr. van der Kolk points out that this is more commonly seen among those with a higher level of education—an important reminder that privilege is an important factor in the means people have to deal with their trauma.
Racial trauma manifests differently, as well. When asked how it affects people’s capacity and ability to cope, Dr. van der Kolk shared that it’s something that eats away at people on a regular basis. Their emotional, cognitive and even physical resources are expended in facing bias and other injustices, whether directly or in bearing witness to others’ experiences, as was the case following the heinous acts against George Floyd, Breonna Talyor, Ahmaud Arbery to name a few.
Minda Harts, author of Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma at Work, shared “Racial trauma is something that many of us have swept under the rug because we haven’t always had the language to articulate the harm we’ve been exposed to intentionally or unintentionally. We have been conditioned to normalize racialized trauma, especially if we are not in the dominant majority.”
She continued, “In 2020, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor took a toll on me not just because another unarmed Black person was murdered, but it took a global pandemic for many in the dominant majority to finally affirm how many Black and brown people had been feeling about racialized injustice for centuries. It took egregious and racialized situations for our lives to finally matter to others. It’s hard to grapple with being racialized inside and outside of the workplace. You feel like no place is psychologically safe for you.”
Harts shared that she stopped going out on long walks because she was scared of being gunned down like Ahmed Aubrey. She continued by saying, “Many of us feel the effects of the anxiety, but we haven’t always had the space to vocalize it, in the ways we are beginning to now through public discourse on racialized trauma. I spent 15 years in my former career, and there wasn’t one day I didn’t go to work that I did not experience microaggressions. If you have been exposed to any toxicity for any period of time, the result is traumatic. I am glad more companies and corporations are beginning to understand that race, gender, and class aren’t something we can ignore anymore.”
How we can help ourselves
If you’re someone who has experienced trauma and often feels overwhelmed in work situations, there are a few things you can try to help you cope.
By noticing what’s happening around you and being conscious and present both physically and emotionally, you can better monitor and control the emotions and sensations around you. “Mindfulness is really very important,” says Dr. van der Kolk. “Learning to be by yourself. Learning to notice. And for many traumatized people, silence is very scary, because all the sensations in your body start coming out. But learning to be mindful is terribly important.”
Learning to recognize the signals that you need to make space for yourself or change something up is useful from an intellectual standpoint, but it doesn’t make much of a difference in the moment. You need to actually experience, physically, where you are in a moment to know where you need to go. Dr. Van der Kolk recommends breathing and movement exercises to increase awareness of the body, as well as things like singing, athletics, and synchronous activities with others. “Being in sync together is a source of pleasure and feeling alive. Any activity that gives you a sense of being in sync with another can give you that sense of pleasure.” For breathing exercises, slowing the breath down to six breaths per minute can have a significant calming and centering effect.
How we can help as managers of others
In the workplace, managers can also be a part of creating an environment that can help prevent their employees from being overwhelmed.
Create predictability within uncertainty
Predictability and a sense of knowing what will come next is very important. Trauma, says van der Kolk, manifests in not knowing what will happen next. Keep people informed and up to date on what’s happening. Surprises can be triggering and painful, even when the unexpected is something innocuous. So, providing as much certainty as possible in a highly uncertain environment, will go a long way.
Allow autonomy over work schedules
Let people set their own schedule as much as you can, van der Kolk says, which can also help with establishing greater predictability. Ask your employees what their most productive time is, how much time off they need. How much company from others they need, or on the other hand, how much privacy they need. With work schedules impacted so much in the past few years due to the pandemic, it’s a good time to reevaluate what people do well and the ways we can adapt to their needs. If they need a schedule that’s a little different, or every hour or two get a few minutes to walk around or get some energy out of their body to stay concentrated, it behooves managers to make room for that.
Let team members know they matter
Ultimately, says van der Kolk, you want to “make an organization where people feel heard, and they feel seen, and they don’t feel like just anybody else.” Thus, letting people know they are an important part of the team and that their contribution matters is particularly vital in supporting a trauma survivor. “Feeling seen and known is a core human requirement,” he reminds us. “And when you’re traumatized, you never feel like an important person.”
Many people around us in our daily lives have experienced some type of trauma, including work colleagues. If not dealt with effectively, trauma can reduce one’s ability to cope with and handle day-to-day work challenges, making them more prone to be overwhelmed. Greater awareness of this issue can help us to help ourselves as well as others dealing with traumatic experiences.