Managing Traumatic Stress and Combat PTSD Through The R-E-C-O-V-E-R Approach*
"9 TO 5": PTSD AND WORK RELATIONSHIPS
Your Job: Where Money and Mental Injury Meet : I can't begin to tell you how many vets I have talked with, whose first clue that they had PTSD came from a confrontive boss, or from a co-worker who told them they were "acting strangely." It's a pivotal point in a person's life when their mental injury becomes "outed" at work. The work place, and the relationships we form within it, are particularly important to us. From these settings, and these relationships, we earn our way in the world. We feed and clothe our children, pay our mortgages, and stay on one side of that very fragile line that separates those who are employed and self sufficient from those who are jobless and descending into poverty. But the workplace is more than just a place where we earn a buck. It is a place where we live more than a third of our lives. Much of the time which we are given on this earth is invested there, along with our hopes, dreams, passions and skills. Much about the workplace defines who we are, to the outer world and to ourselves.
The Workplace: Hiding Place, Or Zone of Vulnerability? : Some vets return home, only to discover that they can't find a job at all, or can't successfully adjust to the job which they DO get. They may have been steadily employed before a stint in the military, but unable to get work after separation from it. Often they don't know why this is the case. In such instances, the workplace can feel like the loneliest place in town, and a very vulnerable one, to boot. The whole process of applying for a job involves answering questions, revealing significant amount of information concerning one's background, and a host of other things that someone with PTSD may find VERY uncomfortable. The entire process places the prospective employer in a position of control: there is one job, and the employer is solely in control of who gets it and, later, how it's performed. This can reinforce feelings of helplessness or loss of control that some PTSD sufferers have difficulty tolerating. The workplace is not only a place in which we may feel vulnerable, but in which we are highly visible. Depending upon the kind of employment you have, you may be under the watchful eye of all kinds of supervisors, managers, department heads and co-workers, many of whom may work elbow to elbow with you. So let's examine that more closely to see where signs of PTSD may arise.
Is "Up Close And Personal" Too Close For You ? : Some workplaces are crowded, noisy, or are filled with sights/sounds/smells that a combat vet or other traumatized person may find "triggering". Sometimes people themselves are a trigger - for example, the presence of men loitering around a worksite, eyeing other female employees, may make a sexual assault survivor feel intensely threatened. Do you find yourself leaving home each morning with a sense of dread you can't put your finger on? Once you get to work, do you become irritated, moody, or volatile for seemingly no reason? Do you suffer from either intense claustrophobia, or its opposite, intense fear of large open spaces? Do you go to great lengths to avoid getting within arm's length of other people? Do you strive to get the cubicle in the back , against the wall, where you can hide? All of these feelings may indicate that a person with PTSD is being exposed to "triggers" on the job, which may re-activate his/her post traumatic stress response.
Are You A Boundary Jumper? As we explain in Chapter 3 of "I Always Sit With My Back To The Wall", some PTSD sufferers whose traumatic experiences are "re-triggered" stage a retreat. Others, however, do the opposite and are very quick to become assertive or even aggressive. When this happens, the worker with PTSD may violate the accepted social norms that we call "boundaries". Simply put, they may get in other people's faces, or other peoples spaces, and are more prone to engaging in conflicts on the job, especially with their superiors. This kind of boundary jumping would be roughly equivalent to insubordinationin the military world, and we all know what kind of consequences THAT can have.
Are You Feeling A Little "Sketchy" On The Job? Once they are within the confines of a workplace, some people find that their ability to concentrate on the task at hand, or remember the last task the completed, or focus on the next one to be done, takes a nosedive. This may be because reading comprehension and memory are significantly impacted by traumatic stress, making job-related reading - including the reading of instructions - difficult. It may also be because a person is experiencing so many triggers in the workplace that the quantity of incoming stressful stimuli is creating an "overload". The mind's defensive response to impending overload is dissociation - the feeling that you have "checked out" for a bit. Unfortunately, by the time you "check in", you may have missed a critical instruction, or forgotten what you last did. This can be intensely embarrassing, time consuming to correct, and even dangerous in some circumstances in which any lapse of attention or focus is risky.
Red Flags On The Job: If the kinds of experiences described above have happened to you, it may be because you are suffering from PTSD and its related downstream effects in the workplace. In fact, many vets never hang around a jobsite long enough to find out: the potential embarrassment , the feeling that they are not performing up to their skill level, or the fear that they might be triggered and have a flashback while at work often sends vets moving for the exits and back into the unemployment line. They may end up chronically unemployed and feeling like failures without ever understanding what was causing the problem. They never made the connection between the problem and PTSD.
As we all know, chronic or long term unemployment leads to other stressors and consequences: economic instability, foreclosure, poverty, increased tension in the home, humiliation and a loss of self worth. In most cases, the sudden inability of the vet to maintain a successful work record is a cause of huge frustration within the family, especially because a spouse and children may not understand what creates the problem. And it is a HUGE problem - one which affects not only the trauma-impacted person, but can directly affect and destabilize an entire family. In extreme cases, homelessness and even domestic violence can be the second or third-order results of workplace problems created by undiagnosed and untreated PTSD.
A Better Approach: Whatever you do, DO NOT IGNORE THESE SIGNS. In our book, "I Always Sit With My Back To The Wall", you will find a simple and organized system for assessing yourself. One of the benefits of using this system is that it will help you to understand when, and by what, you are most likely to be triggered. Properly armed with this INFORMATION, instead of hiding in DENIAL, you will be able to use this "intel" to seek job placement or job counseling in a more empowered way. You can tailor your job searches to maximize your skills and minimize your traumatic re-exposure level. Most important, you can learn to control and manage your symptoms and trigger points.
For more information, see Chapters 1 and 5 of "I Always Sit With My Back To The Wall", and other articles and commentaries on this website.
Back To Articles Menu