Dealing with PTSD Triggers in the Workplace

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Post-traumatic stress syndrome, more commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a mental condition that often comes hand-in-hand with addiction. PTSD a daily struggle for anyone who copes with it. If you aren’t prepared to handle it, PTSD can have a negative impact on everything from your home life to your social life. Even your job could suffer if you don’t have the right recovery-related coping skills for your PTSD. Most workplace environments are full of triggers that can threaten both your mental health and your sobriety. Fortunately, dealing with PTSD triggers in the workplace isn’t impossible. Learning the kinds of measures you should take to manage your PTSD during addiction recovery in a healthy way will allow you to make progress without compromising your work performance.

About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a mental condition that develops in response to an event or series of events characterized by trauma or extreme stress. It usually occurs when someone experiences or witnesses something especially shocking, horrific, or disturbing. Most people think of soldiers and veterans of war when they think of PTSD, but they are not the only demographic subject to this condition. PTSD is also common among people who have suffered abuse, whether sexually, emotionally, or physically. People who have survived tragic accidents may also experience PTSD.

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Diagnosing PTSD

PTSD is one of the trickiest mental illnesses to diagnose, even for experienced medical professionals. Since many of the characteristics of this condition are similar to other mental illnesses like anxiety, it can be hard to detect— and hard to treat. Typically, the signs of potential PTSD and criteria for diagnosis include:

  • Symptom interference in daily life (i.e., at work, in school, at home, etc.)
  • Worsening symptoms months or even years after the trauma took place
  • Continued symptoms even when there is no danger or repeat incident
  • A lessened ability or complete inability to cope with triggers
  • Persistent feelings of fear, unease, or distress
  • Recurring nightmares or night terrors
  • Frequent flashbacks
  • Severe anxiety

PTSD After Getting Sober

PTSD is a common mental condition among those in addiction treatment and recovery. In fact, many people continue to struggle with PTSD even after getting sober. There are countless reasons why people in addiction treatment or rehabilitation may develop PTSD. In most cases, people in recovery develop PTSD in response to suffering a substance-related or childhood trauma, surviving a near-death experience, or even grieving the unexpected loss of a loved one. This, coupled with the fact everyone has different ways of coping with stress and trauma, means that your PTSD triggers will be unique to you.

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PTSD Triggers

PTSD triggers are very similar to addiction triggers. They set off your symptoms of PTSD after exposing you to something that reminds you of your trauma. Triggers can either be internal, like a feeling, or external, like a person, place, thing, or situation.

Some triggers are easier to avoid than others. For example, if you associate a specific place with your trauma, then you can avoid that place during your daily routine. However, you won’t be able to steer clear of all of your triggers. As another example, if your trauma stems from having been burglarized during a blackout, then suddenly losing power at home might trigger your PTSD. In cases like this, you won’t have control over your exposure to specific triggers. This is especially true for external ones. So, recognizing what your triggers are and how to handle them best can help you develop the best possible coping skills for your PTSD during addiction recovery.

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Dealing with PTSD Triggers in the Workplace

It’s important to remember that anything that reminds you of your trauma is a potential trigger. Whether they are internal or external, most triggers are related to your senses. This means that you might come into contact with triggers through sight, touch, smell, or even taste. Also, it’s important to note that many of the triggers themselves are usually harmless. For example, the scent of perfume could serve as a trigger, but the perfume itself will not hurt you. Still, coming into contact with specific PTSD triggers might elicit a mental and maybe even physical fight-or-flight response as if you were in danger.

Some of the most common PTSD triggers during addiction recovery include:

  • Sounds that remind you of your traumatic experience (i.e., a smoke alarm, a police siren, hospital machinery, etc.)
  • Smells related to your traumatic incident (i.e., smoke, food, plants, etc.)
  • Physical things that remind you of your trauma (i.e., a specific object)
  • Anniversaries that hold significance related to your trauma
  • Others’ words or actions that remind you of your trauma
  • Situations that remind you of your traumatic experience
  • TV shows, news reports, movies, or other media
  • Specific people who remind you of your trauma
  • A place or places where you were traumatized
  • Invasive thoughts, emotions or feelings

Opening Up About Your PTSD at Work

Of all of the places that are part of your everyday schedule, your workplace could be the most challenging place to manage your PTSD during addiction recovery. This is because you have the least amount of control over the situations around you at work as compared to at home or with friends. The workplace is already a stressful environment for people who don’t struggle with PTSD. So, it’s essential to prepare for anything during work hours. Fortunately, most businesses have Human Resources (HR) Departments that implement specific accommodations for employees that struggle with mental health conditions, including PTSD.

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PTSD Workplace Accommodations Required by the ADA

Since both addiction and PTSD are legally recognized as mental health diseases, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you from discrimination at work. So, you have the legal right to ask for reasonable accommodations if dealing with PTSD triggers in the workplace on your own becomes too challenging.

Reasonable accommodations, according to the ADA, are any that do not cause “undue hardship” to your employer. Typically, HR departments will determine reasonable accommodations on a case-by-case basis. This means, for example, that reasonable workplace accommodations for handling PTSD may not be the same as the ones set in place for other mental disorders like clinical depression or bipolar disorder.

Some of the more common workplace accommodations for PTSD symptoms that are easy to implement might include:

  • Adjusting your break/lunch schedule
  • Making your work schedule more flexible
  • Allowing you to bring a therapy pet to work
  • Reducing the amount of your non-essential work tasks
  • Disability awareness training for your fellow staff members
  • Giving you enough space to make support calls if you need to
  • Allowing you to make necessary adjustments to your workstation
  • Giving you a more consistent work schedule (if you work part-time)
  • Allowing you to use noise-canceling devices or listen to music while you work
  • Scheduling regular visits with your supervisor for work performance feedback

These and other workplace accommodations can help you reduce your contact with triggers while you’re at work. Still, if dealing with PTSD triggers in the workplace is difficult even with help from HR, then you may want to consider talking to your boss and fellow employees. Opening up about PTSD is a personal decision, and it’s not necessary. However, it may be helpful to make others aware of your situation so they can offer the support you need.

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Getting Support From Others in the Workplace

If your higher-ups recognize that you’ve been having trouble performing to your usual standards at work, they may already know that something is wrong. Disclosing your struggles with them will not only provide insight into the core issue but will also allow them to help accommodate your needs for effective recovery-related PTSD management. This is especially true if you have strong relationships with the people you work with. Getting support from your boss will make dealing with PTSD triggers in the workplace much easier. You can also confide in your co-workers if you feel comfortable. After all, your co-workers are the people that you spend most of your time with every week. Helping them understand your struggles will allow them to help you cope and avoid accidentally contributing to your PTSD triggers.

Consider Your Options Carefully Before Going to Your Boss or Co-workers

While your bosses and coworkers will most likely support you, it’s still important to prepare for if they don’t. Unfortunately, the societal stigma against mental health may influence how they handle the situation. If you suspect that the people you work will label your struggles as a “personal problem,” then it might be in your best interest to rely on HR for any reasonable workplace accommodations. In any case, you should do whatever will make you the most comfortable during your work hours.

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Successfully Coping With Your Triggers at Work

Whether or not you disclose the details of your condition to your boss or co-workers, it’s also important to consider specific factors when building your coping strategy for dealing with PTSD triggers in the workplace. This might include:

  • the industry you work in
  • your work responsibilities
  • your situation in addiction recovery
  • the kind of trauma you’re coping with
  • how your trauma will affect everything else

Once you go over the interconnectivity of these factors, you and your support group can determine the best ways to reduce your PTSD-related stress in the workplace.

Unfortunately, you can’t always avoid PTSD triggers entirely. Internal triggers like feelings and your contact with specific external triggers, especially at work, will be out of your control. So, when something triggers your PTSD at work, it’s important to have ways of soothing your anxiety and handling any negative responses you have. Some of the most effective ways of doing this include practicing mindfulness, using grounding techniques, and staying honest with yourself during an episode.

Practicing Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness means focusing on the present. Many people describe mindfulness as “living in the moment” or taking things “one step at a time.” This is because practicing mindfulness involves learning to ignore any potentially intrusive thoughts about your ‘troubled past’ or ‘uncertain future.’

During an episode of PTSD, practicing mindfulness will remind you where you are both physically and mentally. If you come into contact with PTSD triggers at work, take a moment to step away and calm yourself. Focus on the moment and remind yourself where you are. Having a mantra to repeat to yourself (“I am safe,” “I will get through this,” etc.) may also help. By practicing mindfulness, you’ll be able to shift your focus back to where it needs to be.

Using Grounding Techniques

Grounding techniques bring you back to a calm and focused state of mind during an episode of post-traumatic stress. Using grounding techniques accomplishes the same thing as practicing mindfulness but through different means. Unlike mindfulness, grounding techniques relate directly to your senses, not just the present moment.

If you come into contact with any of your external PTSD triggers at work, you can handle your episode by countering it with something that addresses the same sense. For example, if a rotten smell triggers you, you could either take a step outside for some fresh air or light a scented candle to calm yourself. The same idea applies to the other four senses. 

Staying Honest with Yourself

Perhaps the most critical part of dealing with PTSD triggers in the workplace is to avoid blaming yourself. When people experience trauma, it can be very easy to fall into the habit of self-blame. Thoughts like “I can’t believe I was so stupid” or “I deserve to struggle” are common in PTSD, especially as it relates to addiction and recovery. However, self-blame breeds self-hatred, which will only hurt your chances of making any progress in rebuilding a healthy life for yourself.

Instead of patronizing yourself for having experienced the trauma, be kind to yourself. By replacing negative thoughts with positive truths, you’ll be better equipped to handle post-traumatic episodes. The kinds of things you can remind yourself of might include:

  • “I’m safe.”
  • “I survived.”
  • “I’m supported.”
  • “The worst is over.”

An easy way to be honest with yourself when struggling with PTSD is turning to others for help. Your support system of friends, family, and peers will be honest with you during your recovery because they want to see you succeed. So, listen to what they have to say and take the good advice they give you.

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Learn PTSD Coping Techniques with The Treatment Center’s Outpatient Services

Dealing with PTSD triggers in the workplace is not going to be easy, but it is possible. If you need help building a coping strategy for your addiction recovery-related PTSD, please contact The Treatment Center’s Outpatient Services at (844) 665-6834. Our staff of counselors and addiction treatment professionals is here to help.