Workplace trauma can affect anyone in any profession. How can we deal with it? | Ashwini Padhi

With no apparent signs of trauma, Kate* is by all appearances a woman in her forties: professional, well-spoken, immaculate and confident.

When I ask her what led her to seek treatment, she simply says that she needs help coping with the pressures of her job. What Kate doesn’t know yet is that there’s so much more lurking beneath the surface.

Workplace trauma has long been associated with emergency or front-line workers – police officers, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, doctors and nurses.

But it can affect anyone in any workplace.

Trauma is an emotional reaction that can affect someone both physically and mentally. Workplace trauma can be direct or indirect (secondary or indirect) trauma and include events such as accidents or injuries, death, bullying, sexual assault and even stress related to workload or a toxic work environment.

It can affect attendance, work performance and productivity, and may be linked to developmental (childhood) trauma. Trauma at work can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorderwhich affects around 3 million Australians at some point in their lives.

As with all patients, it’s important to understand how Kate’s traumatic reaction may have been shaped, so we begin by discussing her childhood. As the youngest of six children, Kate endured a difficult upbringing. When she was five years old, her parents separated. Her mother, who was extremely irritable and critical of Kate, repeatedly told her that she never wanted a sixth child and that her conception was when “all the problems in the family started. “.

Shortly after the separation, and with very little financial means, her mother’s life started spiraling out of control with a behavioral addiction. They lived in a shelter when Kate was just 12, and it was there that she was cared for by an 18-year-old who repeatedly sexually assaulted her. She never disclosed the abuse to her mother or anyone else for fear of not being believed.

It was a poignant moment for Kate to reveal this secret to me – one that had plagued her for much of her life. She said it felt like she finally had a weight lifted off her shoulders. Feelings of shame and guilt are often the biggest challenges in therapeutic treatment.

After a troubled childhood, Kate worked hard at school and university, before embarking on a career in advertising. She was a hard worker but also a chronic perfectionist – what she later realized was an adaptation she had learned from her childhood environment and not an asset.

While working hard and striving for excellence are great assets to bring to the job, constantly checking and ruminating on his work for fear of making a mistake hasn’t helped him produce his best work or his mental well-being.

Kate was often the target of sex jokes and sexual advances from some clients and colleagues, which in itself was stressful enough, but it also triggered her earlier trauma from sexual abuse – all of which continued to leave Kate feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.

It wasn’t until Kate was under a new boss that her life really started to unravel. Her new boss was tough on her and Kate became anxious, experiencing heart palpitations, racing thoughts and overwhelming emotions before going to work. Like many people I see in treatment, she felt underappreciated, depressed and like she had no voice.

In rehab, Kate was diagnosed with complex trauma as a result of her repeated trauma.

Regulate your emotions to improve your self-esteem

During treatment, I explained to Kate that just as physical trauma can leave lasting scars, so can psychological and emotional trauma.

First, we began to explain her feelings of stress resulting from exposure to inappropriate sexual innuendo in the workplace.

Kate learned effective communication skills so she could let her colleagues know she felt uncomfortable with their language and ask them to stop. Previously, Kate froze and was afraid to speak.

Kate was now able to see that by not speaking for herself, she was not responsible for her own well-being. She had no compassion for herself.

We also discussed limitations; Kate learned that “no” was a complete sentence and was able to say no to sexual advances.

Even though she felt guilty for saying no, she learned that she still had the right to say it. It wasn’t until Kate began to process the trauma of her childhood that the guilt and shame she carried eased. Kate learned to regulate her emotions, identify unnecessary thinking styles and adopt healthy behavior to improve her self-esteem.

When children are repeatedly exposed to abuse where their boundaries are violated, they develop ingrained beliefs. Kate had believed she was impotent – ​​period – when she was repeatedly sexually abused.

She also identified that although her boss was judgmental and not very kind, her boss was not her mother. Kate understood that her new boss had triggered her own inner critic. We call this a parental introject.

She was then able to discern between her harsh internal messages and core beliefs and those of her boss. She learned to detach from her boss’ messages and identified her learned “walking on eggshells” behavior as an opportunity to pause and check in to regulate her emotions, reframe internal dialogue, and calm down before moving on. his tasks.

Kate was also able to understand that at five years old, she was not responsible for the separation of her parents, and that she overcompensated by being a perfectionist. She understood that her parents were adults at the time and were responsible for their own emotional well-being and stress.

Kate also learned to flatter in response to her mother’s neglect.

This behavior was repeated in her interpersonal relationships and she understood that she had abandoned herself by not taking care of her own wants and needs.

Kate continues to learn how to build self-esteem by communicating her wants and needs, living her values, and focusing on the behaviors that lead her to achieve her goals – even if she has to “act as if” she had self-esteem some days.

*Name has been changed for confidentiality reasons and the client’s story is an amalgamation of several cases

Dr Ashwini Padhi is a psychiatrist at Private South Pacifica trauma, addiction and mental health treatment center

Michael A. Bynum