To be human means to be wired for connection and when this connection is abruptly and mercilessly broken, people are deeply affected on many levels.
Chaos and disruption fuel anxiety, fear and trauma or re-traumatization, feelings of being unsafe or a separation from future optimism. This is only part of what organizational trauma looks like. Gabor Mate states that: “Trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens in you as a result of what happened to you.”
Being left alone after a traumatic incident without support or guidance leaves people’s nervous systems confused and shows many signs of PTSD, anxiety and depression.
Each individual affected by layoffs is going to create their own story of what happened based on who they are and what their life experience has been to date. Anyone left behind will have difficult feelings of guilt, shame, and shock to deal with.
Each of us has experienced childhood traumas or experiences that shape who we are today and impact how resilient we are, or not. Each person is not an island, but a member of a family, community or relationship, each at different stages of their lives.
Just as each person is unique, so are their living stories. Some alone and lonely, others starting a relationship, others observing the price of the rising cost of living and others dealing with the desperate grief that comes from the death of a child.
Trauma affects and infiltrates all aspects of who the person is, and this over-activation of the flight, fight, and freeze response in us can lead to long-lasting changes in the body and brain. Understanding the stress response allows us to make changes that support the choices we make in the future and lead to a sense of regaining control where it was lost.
To do this, you need to understand what happens to you when you’re pushed out of your window of tolerance.
Responding to trauma
This window, when you’re in it, means you can manage what’s currently going on in your life. You will experience stress and pressure, but it will not affect you much. This is exactly where you want to be in life. Whenever an extremely stressful or traumatic event occurs in our lives that we are not prepared for – which they do – we go to one of two places: hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
Hyperarousal is where you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or out of control, your body goes into fight or flight and releases adrenaline and cortisol, the two primary stress hormones. This happens automatically in your body in response to the threatening environment around you.
When you’re in fight or flight, it’s very hard to get a good idea of what your options are, your true potential is out of reach, and it’s not possible to be creative about what your next steps will be. It’s all about survival.
Hypo-arousal means you shut down or go out of zone, wanting to shut down your body by blocking out everything that is going on around you. You may feel frozen, dissociate and suffer from digestive problems. When we are aware of how we respond to stress and trauma, we can make the changes needed to move forward in our lives.
You must first observe what is happening in your body. Once you’ve identified the reaction you’ve had to your experience, you can look at ways to heal. You want to move into what we call the “parasympathetic nervous system,” where you can then navigate the world safely and flexibly again. You will be able to reconnect with others and see your options and possibilities clearly.
If you find yourself in the fight or flight response, you need to look at ways to get back on the ground. Start with self-compassion, kindness to you and the situation you are in.
Pause, breathe in that soft feeling, know that you are not alone and this too shall pass. The hormones released during this phase of the stress response take time to decrease in our bodies.
We can help by becoming aware of the thoughts we have and the attention we give them. Do we believe what we think? Is there anything positive I can replace them with? If not, could I just let the thought pass and not grab onto it?
The more energy we give to our negative thoughts, the more active our systems become. Meditation is an excellent way to focus the brain and it allows our body to relax. If this is too hard to begin with, start by going outside in nature for a walk, directing your mind to just be in the present moment. Remember this will take some time to work, but with conscious, focused effort, it will.
When you’re in a freeze reaction, you may feel out of touch with the world, as if everything around you has slowed down. A great breathing technique is the four-seven-eight breath, which will help you ground yourself back into your environment.
Hold for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale slowly for a count of eight. This is very supportive for your nervous system. Make sure you are in a place where you feel safe and never be afraid to seek help.
By understanding why we react the way we do to traumatic events, we regain some of our coping power. Never forget that you will get through this and with knowledge comes choice.
During the greatest upheavals come opportunities and some of the greatest learning moments. If possible, use this time to develop these superpowers within yourself.
By Mary Parker
Maria Parker is a licensed psychotherapist, mental health nurse, and emotional intelligence consultant with 22 years of clinical experience.
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