When we experience a stressful situation, such as presenting to a large group or attending a performance review, the emotional brain can take over, shutting down thinking functions and going into the fight, flight or freeze response. This is known as an amygdala hijack. Once the stressor is over, our thinking brain comes back online, and we can function effectively.
Fight response presents itself as aggressive, combative, argumentative. Flight response presents itself as withdrawn, anxious, panicky. Freeze response presents itself as going blank, exhaustion, numbness.
When we experience toxic situations - such rape, poverty, violence, and exclusion – the survival brain takes over and we can get stuck in the fight, flight or freeze response leaving the body dysregulated, ashamed, powerless, hypervigilant, lacking trust and feeling unsafe. That’s trauma. Trauma results in a lasting negative change in the way one sees and experiences themselves, others, and the world.
I am the one in three women who are subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. I was molested as a child, which left me feeling unsafe, anxious, and hypervigilant. I was raised by caregivers who survived apartheid, poverty, and gender-based violence. I know what it feels like, and what it looks like to have a traumatized body.
When I started working, I went into the workplace with a dysregulated, anxious, and hypervigilant body. I spent 10 years of my career job hopping (which was a flight response) because workplaces were triggering. The lack of inclusivity and psychological safety, experiences of sexual harassment, patriarchal leadership, severe and chronic stress, and the ‘leave emotions at the door’ culture were triggering.
I remember years ago, sitting across from my therapist describing the panic attack I had at work. She asked if I would be open to working for myself. The idea of working for myself seemed farfetched but it grew on me. After years of body-based and talk therapy, my body is finally regulated and calm. I am now often in my ‘window of tolerance’. The window of tolerance was originally described by Dr Dan Siegel as an optimal state, where one feels balanced and calm, and they can deal with day-to-day stress, ups and downs effectively. This is the state that all employers want their employees to be in.
Now as a coach to leaders and professionals, I encounter many women with first-hand trauma, secondary trauma, and intergenerational trauma due to their identity (gender, sexuality, race, socio-economic status, mental health). A trauma-informed workplace acknowledges that one in three women are subjected to physical or sexual violence, and are survivors of other toxic situations; and thus, actively avoids retraumatizing them by creating and embedding policies, procedures and practices that make the workplace safe, inclusive and fair so that women can thrive.