The Nature of Trauma

When you think of trauma, you might picture physical injuries. Trauma encompasses so much more. Trauma is the response to a shocking, distressing, or harmful situation.  Defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it is an emotional injury that affects performance and well-being. It could manifest itself in mental, psychological, or spiritual conflict. It’s important to note that trauma is very individualistic – what one considers trauma, another might consider a normal part of life. 

Trauma is most easily described as the aftermath we experience in our bodies, following a heightened state event in our lives, triggering the fight or flight response. It is that moment when we are faced with danger – evolutionarily known as when we are faced with possible inhalation or imminent danger to our lives – when we determine whether to fight that which is threatening our lives or recognize that the only other option is to run for our lives.

Typically our physiological response to these types of threats runs the gamut of experiencing shock, or disbelief. During such times we may find ourselves confused, our body temperature rises, and we begin to sweat. Our heart begins to pound. Our breathing rate increases. 

We typically experience muscle tension during such times. Perhaps you are about to have a challenging conversation with a direct report or even your boss. Or you may be about to deliver a high-stakes presentation and you feel your nerves raging with anxiety. Imagine how this would affect the muscles in your throat, impacting your speech as you speak! Sound familiar?  

The result of your voice cracking or straining when speaking could easily negatively impact your delivery. This is no time to have what scientists refer to as the Amygdala Hijack. Your cognitive function is overridden and your only consideration is to survive. 

Even more so when faced with the trauma of mergers, acquisitions, and layoffs, the uncertainty in the workplace caused by COVID, and racial tension that triggered a deep pain like a bandaid being ripped off a scar dating back to 1619. That was the beginning of a social upheaval that expanded from fight or flight to the five hardwired Fs of trauma: fight, flight, freeze, flop, and fawn. It’s imperative that we recognize the severity of the impact of trauma in the workplace. 

  • Fight: physical fighting, pushing, struggling, and verbal assault.
  • Flight: choosing to put a distance between you and danger, running away, hiding out of sight, or backing away from the situation.
  • Freeze: becoming tense, very still, and silent. Commonly the reaction to rape and sexual violence. Frozen in fear is not consensual, it is an instinctive survival response. The freeze response is an animal’s potential avoidance of fights e.g. ‘play dead’ to minimize the interest of the predator.
  • Flop: much like freezing, the difference is muscle flaccidity. This is an automatic reaction that can reduce the physical pain of what’s happening to you. Your mind shuts down in self-protection mode.
  • Friend: locate a ‘friend’ or bystander for support, by shouting or screaming, ‘befriending’ the dangerous person; placating, negotiating, bribing, or pleading. 

Trauma is not just from what happens in the office. It is also what happens outside the office that employees bring with them to the workplace. It is those issues that come up in everyone’s life that are virtually impossible to avoid allowing the impact to play out wherever we are, in some form or fashion. The workplace is no exception.

It is the loss of a parent or spouse that we must face. The issues that come up with our children that haunt us in the office. When the school calls letting you know that little Johnny is acting up in class. Or little Suzy had her first period and got laughed at or bullied by classmates. It’s the failed relationship that we endure. Or the job we are in that we hate and cannot seem to find a way out. 

These moments define your leadership and impact your reactions to the conflicting priorities of the job. This can trigger the mindset of ‘business as usual’, get over it, and get it done. Or weigh the possibility that a team member is reacting to past trauma at the moment and needs an empathetic leader.