When Trauma Is Triggered at Work

overstimulated person

I am in recovery from mental illness and have been on a positive path for the last few years. In the past, I have struggled with depression, anxiety, unresolved trauma, an eating disorder and, later, bipolar disorder.

Recently, I have felt more balanced and stable with the help of regular therapy and appropriate medication. However, I still experience the effects of trauma and symptoms of C-PTSD. While the evolving discourse on mental health is shedding light on the impact of trauma, I have found that we don’t often discuss the experience of managing triggers in the workplace.

1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness each year, so, inevitably, some employees will experience days where they need a moment to address their mental health and regroup. As we envision a healthier workplace that prioritizes mental health, it’s essential for employers to understand this potential for “bad” days and provide the necessary support and accommodations. Additionally, as individuals, we need to be aware of what our personal triggers are and what therapeutic coping skills work best for us.

Working Amid A Pandemic

The workplace has changed drastically in the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, stress accompanies these changes — particularly in the health care field, as health centers are overwhelmed by an influx of patients.

In my experience working in health care, daily tasks have doubled or tripled even though we have no additional help. This work is rewarding; I enjoy helping people and pride myself on doing my work swiftly and diligently. I’m proud of the way we go above and beyond to help. But this level of stress can also be a trigger to those who are managing their own mental illness and trauma.

As we continue to navigate pandemic life and work, employers must remember that even those who enjoy their work can be triggered in the workplace and may need extra support.

My Experience Managing Triggers In The Workplace

Despite my diligence in seeking help and managing my mental illness, there have been two occasions the last few months where my C-PTSD was triggered at work.

The first instance took place when I was reconstituting a medication — a process in which we mix powdered medication and water — and I happened to be opening a medication that is notoriously difficult to work with. In these cases, we have been instructed to hit the bottle against our palms to better loosen the powder from its container. However, no matter how hard I shook the bottle or hit it against my palm, the powder remained stuck.

Repeatedly hitting my palm, though done for a fairly normal reason, triggered me. But trauma does not necessarily recognize “normal” circumstances; while I was, in fact, safe, my body did not know this and reacted from past situations where I was unsafe.

In the moment, I felt a deep, sinking feeling in my stomach and felt tears welling up in my eyes. I made an attempt to reset; out of sight of my colleagues, I took a minute to take a few deep breaths and repeated to myself, “I am safe.” Then, I jumped back into work, although I wish I had taken more time to myself. The distressing images in my mind gave rise to complex emotions, and I did not feel present.

The second instance also took place during a routine task — directing an adult to administer a COVID test to a child — but I was particularly triggered by the circumstances. The child, who was understandably anxious about facing an unknown situation, was particularly vocal in expressing their distress. Upon hearing their protest and cries, I could feel a panic attack coming on. I quickly relocated to a back room where I could reset in private and allow my emotions to run their course.

I calmed myself by focusing on posters hung up on the wall; I noticed the shapes, colors, text and designs. In this moment, I could feel myself dissociate. Everything goes numb — mind and body — and I sink into a floating world of nothingness.

To ground myself and return from this dissociation, I practiced a technique called 5-5-5, which is a skill that engages the five senses. You name five things you see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This skill brings us back to the present, as we can feel very distant in the past in a flashback and no longer feel grounded. The time needed to reset in this way can vary person to person, but it’s important for me to get the feelings of panic out of my system — otherwise they can linger as I do my work.

Addressing Stigma

Employers can play a critical role in helping employees feel supported at work. As I was able to catch my breath and the tears and panic subsided during the second trigger, my phone vibrated in my pocket, snapping me back to present even more. My boss had texted me asking if I was ok. She then let me know to take a moment to myself and come back when I was ready.

I appreciated the support from my manager, and I returned to work — but I still felt shame wash over me, as I worried that I had overreacted in the moment. However, with some reflection, I realized that I was not alone in managing complex emotions.

One of my coworkers had gotten emotional a few months ago in a similar situation, and I had completely understood her reaction in the moment. Knowing that others feel deeply at times, too, helps me feel more comfortable expressing my own emotions.

Now, reflecting on these incidents, I can acknowledge that I was skillful in the moment and recognized my needs. I am working through trauma and bravely recovering and accepting help. I am healing. And I can trust that my coworkers and I will support each other as we cope.

Prioritizing Therapy

I am continuing to make progress in my recovery and trauma work. Recently, I began eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a technique which has proven to have high success rates with trauma survivors. In fact, large percentages of patients report no longer experiencing symptoms of PTSD from a single event traumatic experiences after three 90-minute sessions.

My hope is that I will continue to heal from doing work around my C-PTSD in therapy. I believe that healing is in the horizon, even though it means I must face the trauma before I overcome it.

I hope that if you relate to my experiences, you can find ways to feel safe — at home and at work. Your pain is real. You deserve better. You deserve safety. And you deserve to be gentle with yourself and treated gently by others.

Lexie Manion is a writer, artist, student and mental health advocate. She writes about mental health and body acceptance topics while sharing her personal story of recovery. Lexie is currently studying to become an art therapist, and she strongly believes art and writing can be healing. You can find more of her work at lexiemanion.com or follow her on Instagram at the handle @lexiemanion.