Recognizing dysregulation in the workplace, and understanding how to support them

I hope you had some regulated moments this week and did some exploring into your nervous system. Did you notice your own fluctuating states? Did you notice the fluctuating states of others? Keep your awareness open as you continue to develop your trauma-informed leadership skills.

In this final “science lesson”, we’re going to discuss the three states of the nervous system: flow state (regulated), hyper-aroused (dysregulated) and collapsed (dysregulated) with some different words in a concrete model. (Haven’t read the first two parts yet? Find them here, and here)

But first, I need to tell you a story about a duck.

A few weeks ago, my partner and I had the great pleasure of being able to “farm-sit” for my cousin on her small hobby farm. On day five of our stay my partner rescued a baby duckling from the pond with what appeared to be a broken leg. We got it safe and warm, started calling friends who had knowledge and skills in duck rehabilitation. The little gal survived and after a brief stay with us in town and is now back at the farm being a duck.

The duck had received a life-threatening injury and was left to the elements. After we brought her inside, she SHOOK for about three days. Her body vibrated. Often in the human world we would describe this as “shock” or “coming out of shock” when the nervous system receives an overwhelming scare and loss of control (the true definition of trauma).

What was profound about this situation is that I got to watch in detail a process that happens in the natural world with creatures who have experienced devastating trauma.

In the animal kingdom this physical shaking phenomenon is present to literally shake the fear, overwhelm, high stress and accumulated anxiety out of the body. I could further see that when the duckling was sure of its safety, after about three days of being warm, fed and held the shaking stopped. I also noticed the duckling had no further trauma response after the shaking stopped. It was a duck with a bad leg, but it was not a traumatized duck, it was ready to be a duck again. And true to this – when it was released on the grass it instinctually went to the same group of ducks that had left it for death only two weeks earlier. Due to the extensive mobilization of its nervous system after the trauma, it was able to literally “shake it off” and move on untraumatized.

I knew there was something to learn here. As trauma-informed leaders we understand the hierarchy of the nervous system and that often people feel like they “don’t have a choice” in their nervous system responses. Just as the duck cannot choose how to manage the trauma (its instinct took over as it literally shook it off to complete the fear cycle) we cannot always choose when we enter into dysregulation.

Here’s the “Window of Tolerance” model in a visual.

Understanding this model is going to impact how you conduct relationships, conversations, and processes with people at work. We all move in and out of dysregulated and regulated states all day long. We have been doing this from the time we are born.

Think about a newborn baby, they sleep for a while (regulated), then they wake up and cry (dysregulated), then they eat and gurgle and play with their spoon for a while (regulated), then have a burp with their caregiver as they sing (regulated), then the dog barks and scares the baby’s nervous system and they scream and cry again (dysregulated). Is it really any different in our work life? The point is when you can catch or observe yourself or those you work with from a lens of what state they may be in – your work life gets more coherent.

This tool can be supportive in decision making. Consider your colleague who gets very dysregulated before lunch, they are grumpy, hangry from having only coffee, and short in their answers. Is this the right time to ask them to collaborate on a complicated problem? Or might it be better to wait until they’ve had Subway? Also, does noticing this before lunch dysregulated state offer you an opportunity to reflect on how that person treats people when they don’t take care of their body? The learning opportunities are endless.

You can see how assessing a situation and identifying first your own and then others’ states will support you and the hard conversations that sometimes need to happen in the workplace.

This model helps us to grasp that we have pre-set pathways in our brains of ways we can “go” when we leave a regulated state. It always falls into one of two domains and our behavioral manifestations become either chaotic or rigid. This is true of many, if not all, symptoms of trauma as well. We often see people participating in chaotic or rigid behaviors when they are trying desperately to keep themselves psychologically safe.

At work chaotic behaviour can look like:

  • Disorganization
  • Inability to make decisions
  • A lot of personal life drama brought into the workplace
  • Unsteady or ever-toxic workplace relationships
  • High levels of gossip that cause chaos in the environment

Rigid behaviour at work can look like:

  • Power and control struggles
  • Refusing to participate in relationships unless absolutely needed
  • Perfectionism
  • Constantly pleasing others to the detriment of self

Sometimes these behavioral manifestations can be both chaotic and rigid or cycle quickly between the two. Remember our nervous systems are complex, so it only follows that the behavioral mechanisms are complex as well.

And we are only doing this to stay safe.

If being rigid and shut down at work has kept a person safe from being bullied and gossiped about, they might continue to be shut down to keep themselves safe. If yelling and controlling at work keeps a person “safe” because no one will question them or their confidence, they will continue to yell and be controlling at work as it keeps their ego “safe”.

It’s important to remember that unless we are actively looking at this in ourselves, it probably goes unnoticed and causes of pain or difficulty on many levels at work.

As a trauma-informed leader, we take on the responsibility to dig deep into where we go when we are dysregulated at work: do we shut down? Get overly controlling? Micromanage? Take 47 breaks and play on your phone?

Start noticing these things in yourself … there is absolutely nothing wrong with you – you are becoming aware, and it can be vulnerable and uncomfortable at the beginning.

Once you can notice how and when you leave your flow state and start gaining techniques to come back into regulation you will be able to adeptly support others in noticing the same.

How do we come from dysregulation back into regulation? We look right into our nervous system and ask what are our cues of safety and embodied practices? Is it regulating by taking a walk? Is it cuing safety by texting another leader who can support you? Is it taking a break to meditate for five minutes on an app on your phone instead of skimming social media? Is it closing your door for 10 or 20 deep breaths before re-engaging? Is it doing yoga on your lunch break? Is it setting up yoga for your whole office on lunch break so you can co-regulate?

Get creative! What works for you, your team, and your workplace culture?

If you are a duck, it is your culture (in the animal kingdom) to shake it off and keep going. As humans we are in a different place and can choose what regulation technique works best for us. We look to our teachers as mentioned in the last blog that have designed techniques to “hack” the nervous system through breath, yoga, cold water and more. Understanding our movement in and out of the three states and that this is a natural, expected process for humans takes the shame and blame out of the fact we are all going to dysregulate from time to time.

How we learn and shift from moving in and out of dysregulation is the key to how we will move through our lives. Dysregulation is often incredibly uncomfortable but when we can notice it, anchor into our strategies, and shift back to a regulated state where it is safe, we will see the highest potential of each human we interact with.

Take a big deep breath and let your shoulders relax down your back: regulation is just a few moments away. Stay with the process and keep growing. You are well on your way into the journey of foundations into trauma-informed leadership.

Can you feel the shift? I can – and it’s changing the workplace in the best way possible.