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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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!
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