Ø Trauma and resilience are two sides of the same coin. As I see it, building resilience, and managing to retain reserves of it, is our main trauma-resistance and recovery strategy....
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Building Resilience & Resisting Trauma at Work
helping yourself and supporting others
Based on materials and experiences drawn from project work and the Guide that accompanies our Resilience-Based Trauma-Training clinic
by Bill Cropper, Director - The Change Forum © 2016-17
Trauma can happen slowly. Or suddenly, in seconds. But its effects can last much longer. Whether a critical incident, accident, natural disaster or any number of workplace woes we find overwhelming, trauma can keep on triggering distressing physical, emotional and mental reactions that play havoc with our nervous system, make life hard-going, our behaviour erratic and our relationships very difficult to manage.
I've been exceptionally fortunate over the past year to work with a unit that cares deeply about what happens to its people, and wanted to do something constructive to help them confront the reality of work-based trauma and its impacts.
What resulted from our collaboration on this troubling topic was the development of a program for supervisors and staff I called Resilience-Based Trauma-Training, along with the parallel production of a pocket-guide for staff containing self-help formulas, tools and tips on ways to build resilience and handle trauma better at work.
Trauma and stress are normal things we all deal with – handling them is a natural part of being alive and being human. Experiencing trauma is not abnormal, weak or wrong. It's the natural, biologically-based, self-survival response of our nervous system to threat and hazard.
Trauma can build-up slowly. Or happen suddenly, in seconds. Either way, its effects can last much longer. Our nervous system becomes over-wrought and can't get back in balance because our brain keeps ringing alarms long after the event's passed, and things should have settled back down.
For some, our nervous system gets stuck – locked in the 'on' position, repeatedly replaying the same loops of alarm, adding on extra stress as it refuses to switch-off. We go from stress to distress, feeling the effects bodily, mentally, emotionally and behaviour-wise.
Trauma events are more than just run-of-the-mill stressful. We start to feel our everyday world around us is unsafe, threatening or dangerous – even if it's not in reality.
Trauma can come from a one-off event. Or it can build up slowly from an accumulation of repeated events over time. Degrees of trauma can vary depending on the kind of event, type of trauma, or it's severity or impact...
Whichever way you see it, trauma disrupts our body's ability to cope with churned-up emotions or chilling thoughts such events bring up, and frequently bring back, for us.
The effects of exposure to trauma-inducing events are not always immediately apparent. Some of us can seem unaffected afterwards. But we all know others who've picked-up some trauma, even if it didn't come out until much later.
Ignored, concealed and left to fester untreated, trauma can damage us and others around us. Trauma has lots of repercussions:
Resilience and trauma are two sides of the same coin. As I see it, building resilience, and managing to retain your reserves of it, is our main trauma-resistance and recovery strategy.
Resilience can act like a 'stress-buffer'. It helps us withstand stressful events – big or small – to soldier on, or adapt, rather than surrender. It's what helps us handle life's trials, tests and setbacks, whether they're big or small.
How much resilience we have in our reserve tanks can be an indicator of how readily we can get back to a ‘steady state’ after the air's been knocked out of us. It helps us take knocks, come back strong, try again and take positive action.
One defining aspect of resilience is it really only becomes noticeable when we face up to traumatic events. It's harder to see while things are going well. It’s easier when we go through things we wish hadn’t happened.
How much resilience you have also harks back to other emotional traits such as self-belief, self-efficacy, optimism, focus, hope and happiness.
The good news is resilience skills can be learned. We can all learn ways to train our brain to strengthen resilience – to get more in the tank to cope with those hard times and unanticipated incidents, accidents and emergencies.
The basic brain science behind threat-management is that our sympathetic nervous system winds you up to face it. Your parasympathetic system then follows-up with a bodily wind-down after the alert's called off.
That's the usual rhythm of things if you're not over-stressed or traumatised. Your nervous system is cleverly designed to reset itself back to a balanced state after a traumatic event. This is known as your ‘Resilience Zone’ – and we can all get access to ours.
If you're inside your Resilience Zone, you can mostly handle daily stresses and challenges life throws at you. No real problem. We're emotionally balanced. We have the capacity to focus, self-control and think clearly. We're also more capable of managing our stress more positively whether it's chronic, cumulative or incident-based. We're more able to get off, and stay off, trauma's emotional roller-coaster...
But sometimes our bodies get out of emotional balance or the stress piles up too much.
When a trauma-event turns out to be too hard to handle, we overload. Our 'wind-up-wind-down' rhythm gets disrupted so our nervous system has trouble resetting itself. When this happens, you can get...
If you end up in one of these areas, it means you've been knocked out and locked out of your Resilience Zone that you need to be in for your nervous system to reset and emotions resettle.
Anyone can get bumped out of their Resilience Zone if life's too stressful or events are too traumatic. Many of us manage to get back in it on our own.
But all of us can benefit by learning a few self-help strategies to make getting back in a bit easier. I call these Trauma Resistance Management Strategies. Their aim is to reduce trauma by expanding your Resilient Zone so you spend more time in it and less time out of it.
Professional trauma counselling may be imperative for many people to help them over early hurdles. In the end though, trauma is what happens to you on the inside. So recovery relies a lot on what you can do to help yourself too. There's much to gain from working-up your own trauma-resistance management strategies.
My Resilience-Based Trauma Training clinic revolves around 5 Trauma-Resisters and 5 Resilience-Builders.
Each set of Trauma-Resisters and Resilience-Builders has a selection of tools attached to it. People pick which ones to integrate into their own personal self-help Trauma Resistance Action Plans, or use them to strengthen the part they play in assisting others who've been touched by trauma, whether they're a colleague, a manager or designated peer supporter.
Research shows those who practise strategies like these say they feel more in charge of their stress and anxiety – that it's no longer in charge of them so much.
They also say they have tools to help them restabilise, refocus, rebalance and reground at times when they feel overwhelmed, and strengthen their reserves of resilience by staying focused, positive, more in control of stress-thoughts and emotions.
Apart from just straight incidents or accidents, there's many other sources of trauma at work that can affect you or your staff's well-being.
While many tend to automatically associate trauma with tangible incidents, work-based trauma resulting from an accumulation of less readily visible factors such as harassment, bullying, over-bearing bosses, toxic cultures, or systemic stress and work-overload, also appear to be on the rise.
I've noticed over the years that workplaces seem to have spawned more 'busyness cultures'. The pace and pressure of such 'rush-n-hurry' cultures comes at a cost.
Stress and its toxic effects can steadily build-up over time and take us by surprise without us noticing. Erratic, uncivil behaviour can become endemic, and in a vicious systemic circle, provide a breeding-ground for more work-based trauma.
Trauma management strategies like I've outlined above may be needed more in the future as workplaces really begin to count the costs of stressful work environments.
Over the past fourteen years or so, much of my work has centred on helping people build emotional and social intelligence capacities needed to create more connective, caring cultures.
Emotional intelligences such as self-awareness, self-management, mindfulness, resilience and focus have a lot to do with the inspiration behind my Resilience-Based Trauma Training program and the personal pocket-guide that accompanies our clinic.
See our on-line Course Calendar for dates our public clinics are coming up in your area. And if you’ve a group of 10 or more, we’re happy to come to you. Use our on-line enquiry form or call Bill Cropper direct to discuss arrangements for an in-house clinic at a venue of your choice
Article copyright © Bill Cropper - The Change Forum 2016-17
The Change Forum has specialised in producing practical programs for leaders and teams around resilience, compassion, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, skillful conversation, culture change, learning organisations and building better teams since 2001.
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