The Trauma of Workplace Stress: How Therapy Can Help

office environment with four coworkers (blurred)Most of us experience work stress, but can too many responsibilities, unrealistic expectations, and personality conflicts at work lead to an experience of trauma victimization over time?

In my years of private psychotherapy practice, I’ve seen several cases where individuals experience signs similar to posttraumatic stress as a result of work problems. In the beginning, I found this slightly odd. I wondered: could negative work experiences really lead to reactions similar to trauma experiences, like war or sexual assault? Lately, in conversations with colleagues, I’ve discovered this is fairly common, particularly in certain professions.

How Your Work Environment Can Leave You Feeling Victimized

I recently interviewed Arkansas professional counselor Rev. Rebecca Spooner, an ordained minister who left ministry to become a therapist. She specializes in counseling pastors and their families, and said that feeling victimized and traumatized by their work environment is relatively common among members of the clergy. Rev. Spooner explained that the demands and expectations of modern ministry set pastors up for personal failure and emotional trauma.

“The paradigms in ministry are flawed,” Spooner said. “A hundred years ago, pastors had four jobs: marry, bury, baptize, and preach on Sunday. Today, ministers are expected to be marriage therapists and grief counselors, organizational leaders, facilities and staff managers, marketing coordinators, community relations specialists, bloggers, motivational speakers, spiritual teachers, salespeople (increasing membership and giving), budget managers, visit the sick, be a friend, and serve on regional committees! It’s completely unrealistic. It sets everyone up for disappointment.”

These experiences are similar to what’s happening in private companies in recent times, particularly since the economic crash of 2008. Companies have laid off people and expect those who remain to do more work for less pay. New performance measures are adding pressure, and employees are micromanaged. Among the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) referrals I see in my office, stress related to new and unrealistic work performance expectations ranks at the top of the list.

The people who see me for help with work-related stress have complaints that are similar to what Rev. Spooner sees among clergy: insomnia, irritability, mood swings, anger, feelings of disappointment and disillusionment about their career and employer, confusion about why they are unable to meet the demands placed on them, hopelessness, anxiety and fear, fatigue, muscle tension, family problems, feelings of isolation, ineffective coping, and substance abuse. It’s a long list! Work stress is a big problem in America.

Many of us are familiar with trauma reactions after major catastrophes, but few of us realize that a work environment characterized by unrealistic demands, personality conflicts, and limited free time for leisure can, over time, create an experience of victimization.

3 Ways Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps individuals shift from perceiving themselves as having little control over their circumstances to becoming empowered to either change outside pressures or learn to cope with and relate to them differently. With practice, CBT techniques can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood, and increase confidence.

CBT treatment has helped ministers reduce the experience of stress and trauma caused by the challenges of their profession. These same techniques can also help most people heal from various traumatic and emotionally difficult situations. CBT reduces distress and helps to restore emotional balance. Here are three techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy to use in your own life.

  1. Learn to identify the thoughts that increase your anxiety and your self-doubt. A large majority of individuals who come to see me for anxiety therapy are quite surprised when I mention that their thoughts are likely causing their anxiety. Most people believe anxiety is something that happens to them, something over which they have no control. But in fact, how we talk to ourselves about the situations we face has a great deal to do with how we feel. For example, if a minister tells herself that because her church is not growing she is not an effective leader and has failed God, she is likely to feel emotionally upset and believe that she is not capable of growing the church. By repeating self-defeating thoughts in her head, her self-esteem erodes. Eventually, she may just give up trying altogether and become depressed. This is the trick trauma plays on us: it tells us that something is wrong with us and that we are helpless, but most of the time our thoughts are not true.
  2. Dispute the thought. Once you’ve identified the anxiety-producing or self-defeating thought, it’s time to dispute it. Here’s an example: “If I don’t grow the church, I’ll get fired.” Let’s examine if that thought is true. In most denominations, firing a pastor takes effort. First, the leadership of the church has to vote that they have lost confidence in the pastor. Then, they have to bring the issue to a congregational vote. In many cases, a national mediator becomes involved to help resolve the conflict and improve the employee/employer relationship between the church and the pastor. So the thought, “If I don’t grow the church, I’ll get fired” is not exactly true. What’s much more likely to happen is that if the church is not growing and leaders are dissatisfied, a conversation will occur about why that’s happening. And hopefully, that conversation will lead to solutions. Notice your own thoughts and question them. Are they true? How do you know for sure? What are some alternative explanations that might be more true?
  3. Learn to relax. The third CBT technique that Rev. Spooner uses is relaxation training. When we learn to relax the tension in our muscles and reduce the speed of our thoughts, our brains function better. They see things more clearly. Gen. Colin Powell has a rule. He tells himself, “It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.” That’s partly because when our brains are rested, we see situations differently. Relaxation training can teach you to rest your brain. My personal hope is that one day, we will collectively learn to be realistic about our demands and expectations of people and be kinder to one another. Until then, if you find yourself feeling victimized, excessively pressured, or doubt your worth or abilities, try CBT. It really can help!

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Chantal Marie Gagnon, PhD, LMHC, CAP, SAP, therapist in Plantation, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Marina

    September 5th, 2014 at 11:08 AM

    How can this help as a whole? I know that therapy can personally help me but what if I am not the problem and it is other people that I work with that cause me so much of the stress that I feel? I suppose that therapy can help me with coming up with better ways to handle the stress but it does not change the root cause of the problem which in general for me is the other people that I have to be around who are causing the anxiety levels at work to creep upward!

  • Elsa

    September 5th, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    I have always thought that it would be nice in certain work environments to have your employers actually bring in someone who can facilitate much more teamwork and open communication with their employees than what they likely have in the past.

    I think that there are too many employers who choose to have their heads in the sand and avoid the controversy without realizing how much all of it is actually hurting on the job performance.

  • JB

    September 7th, 2014 at 5:00 AM

    I have never quite understood those people that we work with who think that it is basically ok to make others around them feel like crap all of the time. They blame everything that goes wrong on them and they expect them to say nothing when they go on ranting and raving like a lunatic. These people are nothing more than adult bullies and they are the ones who in essence need therapy from the start but we are the ones who end up having to get it due to having to put up with all of their anger and rage all of the time. Something not quite right about that.

  • JH

    September 7th, 2014 at 10:15 PM

    This has been really helpful. Re lack of transparency in work place, cultural differences, work overload fatigue, employer denial.
    1. Identifying self talk – trace it, face it, replace it…..our original family roles n crap..hmmm
    2. Relaxation n breathing n mild exercise / A walk or swim helps me too….
    3. An understanding Doctor / other professnals/ n medication can really help if chemical mood swings eg surgical menopause.
    And if our work, after dialogues with boss, still no progress….consider another place of employment!

  • Jess

    September 8th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    Therapy is the one thing that may be able to help you put all of this in perspective and not feel the need to dwell on it quite so much.
    I know that most of us would really allow this to bother us and get us down, and it could impact in a very profound way how we feel about our jobs and how we feel about working with the other people there.
    I think that allowing yourself to talk to someone about the things that are happening can allow you to sort of disassociate form that pain for a while and can give you some time to determine how you wish to handle the situation and the anxiety that it is causing in your life.

  • georgina

    September 8th, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    Really, the one thing that all of us need to remember is that there are just those people who only feel good about themselves when they are making someone else feel really bad.
    If you know that this amongst whom you are forced to work, I think that if you can remember that this is probably the kind of person that you are looking at here, then that can actually make you feel a little better about yourself and feel sorry for them, that this is the only way that they can not feel so bad about themselves.

  • Krissy

    September 9th, 2014 at 10:26 AM

    Maybe I am lucky but I just don’t take that kind of stuff home with me at the end of my day, I just don’t.
    I saw what workplace stress did to me dad, I would say that it almost killed him and I have resolved to not be like that.
    I know that there are people and situations everywhere that you would like to take on and do something about but we can’t solve every problem in the world. I do my part, help others when I can, and then when I leave every day that is my time and I don’t let anything that happened in the previous 8 hours get involved in that.

  • John

    September 12th, 2014 at 7:11 PM

    Truth is that most work environments are toxic and indifferent to their employees. CBT is helpful, but I despise what most therapists have to say about the workplace. Most therapists work in nice, air-conditioned, uninterrupted settings with lots of autonomy — unlike most of us who have been hit with an onslaught of suggestions, advice, scoldings, etc., from well-intentioned people who are idealistic ignoramuses. At 58, I finally have a helpful therapist helping me through my work and personal issues, but bottom line is that I am going to be a self-employed person. The corporate workplace can go to HELL and any therapist ignorant of those realities can join them too!

  • Dr. Chantal

    September 13th, 2014 at 1:33 PM

    Hey thanks everyone for taking the time to comment on my post! I love that this article connected with you and it’s always fun to engage with my readers!

    Marina,
    Yes, indeed it can be challenging to learn that we are responsible for our reactions and responses to people and events. But that can also be very empowering and freeing. You commented that you have to be around people who cause your anxiety levels to go up. Yes, some people are more difficult to deal with than others, but it is only ourselves who cause our anxiety levels to go up. While it may not seem that way when we’ve had little practice at managing our emotions effectively, it is in fact possible to do just that. That’s exactly what CBT can teach: how to disconnect those emotional hot-buttons so that we are not as affected by the difficult people around us!

    Elsa,
    Absolutely! There are employers who do that and it can be very helpful, but unfortunately many employers do not want to pay for consultants to improve the organizational climate and employee morale. The irony is that when they do, productivity and profit usually do go up. Having a healthy work environment can increase creativity and problem-solving, leading to better products, more efficient processes, etc.

    JB,
    Yep, they are adult bullies. Like the old saying “Hurt people hurt people”. I often tell my clients: “Some people have a lot of emotional poison in them and don’t know how to get rid of it. So, they pass it along to others”. It’s perfectly OK to have compassion for them, but with healthy boundaries and it’s usually better to stay at a safe distance.

  • sharon s.

    May 27th, 2015 at 8:31 AM

    I have just had to leave my job due to being victimized by my colleagues because I had to report them for their behaviour of someone we looked after. I tried to stick it out, i am a strong person, or i thought I was but the last six months have been horrible, i even contemplated ending it all, that I have told no one. It is horrible how i am feeling. My company did nothing, i had no support at all.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 27th, 2015 at 10:17 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Sharon. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Dr. Chantal Gagnon

    June 9th, 2015 at 7:53 AM

    Hi Sharon,
    Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry you’ve had such a difficult time at work. Unfortunately, in many organizations agendas other than caring for people take precedence and whistleblowers are seen as troublemakers. Two books that I and my clients have found very useful in learning how to not take things personally and learning to insulate yourself from workplace dysfunction and drama are: 1) “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, and 2) “Dealing with People You Can’t Stand” by Rick Kirschner and Rick Brinkmann. Each of those books offer understanding of why people behave the way they do and strategies for coping effectively.

    I hope you will connect with a helpful therapist and start to feel better soon!

    Dr. Chantal

  • Sabrina

    November 3rd, 2015 at 11:56 AM

    This was very helpful to me I like the examples of the preacher, my situation is a little different I feel discriminated against at work I did make a couple of calls to get transferred but I figured what if this happen again at another place of work how would I handle it.

  • Kate

    September 28th, 2016 at 5:45 PM

    Hi thanks for this article. Though the points you make are useful, I personally believe that in some circumstances they just won’t cut it. Yes we are responsible for managing our own thoughts, feelings & self care HOWEVER there is a point where I do not believe we can or should be held accountable to this notion when we it comes to abuse. I feel your suggestions under such circumstances are akin to the practice of sending traumatised soldiers for psychiatric treatment in order to “patch them up” & send them back to the war zone (over & over). And if someone is for whatever reasons “trapped” in a job because there may be no other options etc (which is becoming more & more the case) then this only potentiates the trauma as far as I’m concerned. Cannon fodder for the rich & powerful agendas of the growing neo liberal (almost fascistic) ruthlessly capatalistic society many of us are living in. It’s 2016 now & in Australia (where I’m from) this issue is increasing at an alarming rate.
    To be frank, I think we might be better off at this stage calling for civil uprising (god knows some of our bigger unions are fighting hard for worker rights currently in this country) as ridiculous as that might sound. I NEVER thought I’d ever find myself seriously entertaining this idea but there you have it and I’m very aware that there are many people (and NOT just in Australia!) who are very much of the same mind. :(

  • Darren G

    December 19th, 2016 at 3:00 PM

    As we are now finally learning to process the reality of Operational Stress Injuries (Trauma) and resulting conditions (PTSD, Substance-Use, Depression etc.) in Public Safety Professions in Canada, the evidence is very clear (subjectively and objectively) that the response of the Employer towards our experience of illness can make or break potential in workers for recovery.
    We know that working conditions (long-hours, mandatory over-time, and often limited income) also has an impact that contributes to the most negative outcomes.

    We are experiencing rising rates of reported PTSD in Public Safety. We expected this would be the case, given that stigmatization of mental health issues generally contributes to workers suffering in silence leading to them not seeking the help needed to overcome the experience.
    The more supportive the work environment, the better the outcomes are for workers. In far too many cases, with the issue of trauma in this field having been buried for nearly half-a-century now, outcomes have been of the worst in terms of scenarios-suicide is high right now in workers from Public Safety.

    We know too, that our systems of safety and compensation are adding much insult to injury.

    What we’re asking for now, is for these systems of care to respond immediately to a psychologically injured workers needs, and that they cease blocking of claims for Operational Stress Injuries.

    It’s going to take us still a long time before we see progress that improves outcomes.
    Some of our workers now, we must accept, will be disabled for life.

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