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Development of Complex PTSD in the Office - Is Your Workplace Doing You Harm?

Working in the space of work health and safety has given me experience in a wide range of related topics within the field

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Ever noticed how weird it is returning to an old workplace after you have worked elsewhere? We all have had that sensation in one way or another. That sense of it being so familiar but also foreign, like you are looking at it from the outside and something about it is almost alien to you.

The last job I left, I felt that emotion so much more keenly than ever before. Walking in the building's vicinity and the block that it is on, was enough for me to hold my breath till I felt sick. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first. What exactly caused this sense of impending doom, this sense of a threat or that the world was going to collapse in on me?

The sight of co-workers from that old workplace was elicited a babbling that left me breathless and when the conversation was finished, there I stood, feeling utterly and completely depleted. Sometimes there would be sweat on my brow and my hands clammy and sore from my digging my fingernails into my palms.

Years after leaving and I am now working at a place that gives me purpose, a place that I enjoy working at but even now I still struggle with a sense of anxiety and even depression when it comes to thinking about that past life or if I am placed in situations with potential triggers.

I find it almost impossible to control my emotions when I am surprised or taken aback, when I am laid bare from someone even slightly attacking me. If they try to take my power or control from me in certain situations I am basically instantly triggered. Over the years I have gained more control and have desensitized to some of my triggers. I still find myself drawn to spots in my office and unfamiliar situations where I can keep my back to a wall and no one can be behind me without me knowing.

I am and will probably at least in the foreseeable future be one of an ever-increasing number of people that suffer from some level of Complex PTSD from an office job.

PTSD in the workplace is becoming a very identifiable epidemic

PTSD in the workplace is becoming a very identifiable epidemic

When we normally think or talk about sufferers of PTSD, it is more strongly recognised as a disorder suffered by soldiers and first responders, those that are exposed to intense moments of trauma, whether by them or those around them.

But when you look around at this world, we live in you notice a trend is showing amongst office workers and employees that are in similar environments and that is a rise of anxiety, stress, exhaustion and bullying all coming together in a perfect storm that leads those exposed to suffer with the same symptoms that you would find in those coming back shell-shocked from war or a natural disaster.

People with Complex PTSD often experience feelings of panic or extreme. The symptoms can include but aren’t limited to a sense of going through the trauma event again (a feeling so real that you would swear you were back there), and usually this will be followed with a clammy sweat breaking out and your heart beating harder and faster than normal. I’m usually met with the sensation of hypervigilance, and a sense of dread that I might have to experience it all again when placed in situations that remind me of the initial incident. When I get too overwhelmed and this can happen in the workplace when subjected to bullying or way too much stress, I will disassociate, which is a sense of disconnecting from a situation and having your emotions shut down. It is a scary thought that something that can happen at work can be as triggering as being under fire or in a dangerous situation.

These situations can make a person feel isolated but don't be afraid to seek help.

These situations can make a person feel isolated but don't be afraid to seek help.

Looking back, my symptoms of Complex PTSD appeared over several years and didn’t actually go away after I left the role that caused all the damage in the first place. The role was a pretty low level of the organisation, but the responsibilities dropped on it were out of this world. It was always a role paired with stressful and busy times. Once the role became too much, that was when the bullying started and that is when I basically lost the ability to sleep properly, which further depleted my resilience against any attack that might have come from my team leader. Emails were sent with impossible deadlines to tasks and every word was crafted as to stitch me up in one way or another. I would wake up feeling like what little sleep I had gotten was actually just my brain dreaming that I was at work doing the work for the next day.

Because I wasn’t sleeping or finding an outlet or even the strength to stand up against the onslaught, I found I could never get away from the workplace and the nightmare become a waking and sleeping nightmare. Every morning I would walk through the park on the way to work and my mind would race and I would also find myself out of breath, it took me what felt like years to realise that I had been shallow breathing the moment I started heading to the workplace. I never really felt an absolute fear of going to work because in my mind everything I did and everywhere I went was part of the work. I lived and breathed it every moment of the day.

The weird thing is that I continued to make the choice to stay in that horrible workplace, like the work itself was so much more important than my basic sense of wellbeing.

It took a bit of time, but eventually the shields drained too low and they lay my defenses bare.

It took a long time for me to wake up to it, but one day, the choice was made for me, when my CEO of the time got a HR person to come down to our offices and tell me to my face that I didn’t really deserve to be paid for all the extra work I was doing and just like that, I got up and walked away from them. I walked straight back to my desk and started applying for jobs, and almost completely switched off from all of my work issues. I basically disassociated, but I dissociated with focus. Not too long after that event, I found myself a new job, and I left that place in the dust.

Even with the new job and the wonderful people I work with I still found that I could not communicate with those around me with full effect, and so I had to seek the help of a medical professional and together we have started the journey to a higher run of the mental health ladder. This is when I got the initial diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The feelings of being overworked, stressed, bullied and isolated by work leaders and colleagues is not systemic to any one industry unfortunately as it can happen in basically all of them and the condition itself can really be triggered by anyone if the issues are not dealt with and you allow for your strength to be taken from you.

Severe bullying, that is endured for a sustained period can have massive negative effect mental health. Especially when you have had to work with and in spite of those that display behaviour traits of narcissists and sociopaths/psychopaths. The personality types, when they go full dark side, end up causing issues that can be massively damaging in office environments.

The impacts of being subjected to ongoing stress and its effect on the body and mind are becoming better understood but with introducing things like COVID burnout now, I think it won’t be too long before we see a huge growth in the number of people that are affected by some sort of PTSD from their workplace environments; it is just a matter of time. It is not a condition that should be taken lightly or promptly ignored.

All I can really say is that if you feel you are displaying any or all of the symptoms of PTSD or Complex PTSD, please take the first step and seek the support of a therapist or even look into whether your organisation has access to an employee assistance program that might just help you regain some of your strength of self.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Paddy Michelson

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