65. The Best Coworkers are Trauma-Informed

Trauma and toxic stress is pervasive in the workplace. You, your friends, your coworkers are all dealing with some version of trauma from, among other things, adverse childhood experiences, the pandemic, climate change, natural disasters, poverty and racism. While all events impact us individually, it’s important to recognize the signs of trauma and normalize trauma-informed workplaces.

In this episode of Crina and Kirsten Get to Work, our dynamic duo takes on trauma.  The pandemic is a traumatic event, whether we know it or not – although its impacts on us individually are very different.

This episode draws from an article advancing a trauma informed approach to work – and while we of course need to be aware of our own trauma, being aware of co-workers’ trauma is important in creating the kind of workplace we all want – one with ease, meaning and joy.  


Trauma is physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening experiences with lasting adverse effects on our functioning, mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.  This can be things like a physical assault, verbal abuse, witnessing someone else endure these experiences.  Kirsten and Crina think that toxic and prolonged stress has much the same effect as trauma.  Think the pandemic, racism, political unrest – yes, friends, we have had it all.

When we experience trauma or toxic stress, we can feel disassociated, persecuted, depressed, negative and disheartened.  We can experience physical pain and discomfort, nightmares, insomnia, mood swings and panic attacks.  And things we may struggle with in normal times, like anxiety, become more difficult to deal with.

Our brains are literally hard-wired to deal with trauma and toxic stress.  When the brain senses danger, the amygdala springs into action, which causes the sympathetic nervous system to fight, take flight, or freeze. Blood and oxygen are diverted to muscles and away from our brains, and a surge of adrenaline enables us to fight or take flight. Cortisol is released to inhibit any pain that might slow us down. All systems not crucial to survival are suppressed. Basically, the “survival” brain overrides the “rational” or “thinking brain” in the cerebral cortex, where rational thought and executive functioning, like problem solving and cooperating with others, take place.  And when your brain sends these signals over and over again, well, it is overwhelming.  Now, imagine that you have to show up and work – or these things are going on at your work – yikes!

Most importantly, we need to manage our own trauma and toxic stress – and there are some great strategies for doing so:  get outside, connect with people you love and who are energy giving, simplify your life, love on your dogs and cats, find something to be grateful for – (chocolate?), extend grace and compassion to yourself, and reset your nervous system with yoga, breathing, meditation and movement in general.

After addressing what we can do about our own trauma and toxic stress, Crina and Kirsten dive into what about others’ trauma and toxic stress in the workplace.  And there are a lot of folks in the workplace with trauma and toxic stress – in fact two-thirds of us have experienced some kind of childhood trauma.  

The first step is to educate ourselves – like this podcast!  The next step is to normalize these experiences.  And provide space for these experiences.  As a co-worker, look for the signs of trauma and stress.  Be curious, listen and if someone does open up to you, try not to problem solve unless specifically asked, be a witness, hold space.  One on one check ins are a great opportunity for this.  

If you are in a place to influence the workplace, encourage employees to take breaks, make sure the break room is not just caffeine and sugar, institute scheduled stretching times, consider an educational program for all staff on these issues.

As Oprah says, “I’m really proud to say that even in my worst moments, I’ve always had the good sense to know that however bad things were, they wouldn’t remain so.”


Signs & Symptoms of Psychological & Emotional Trauma | Cascade Behavioral Health