There are a lot of factors impacting us at work these days. We are watching stress and burnout rise among our team members, health problems due to anxiety and depression are skyrocketing, and people are needing more and more time off for personal and mental health-related reasons.
In this space we have begun to have some discussions about things like Trauma-Informed Leadership, Regulation/Co-Regulation, and Neurodiversity at Work. These topics are deeply intertwined and as we develop and expand our skill sets as managers, leaders, supervisors, and co-workers there are deeper ideas and practices to explore.
When we start to consider the intersection of our professional lives and topics like trauma, regulation, and relationships, there’s a lot we can tease out and untangle when we look at it through the lens of our human nervous system. When we understand how our bodies work in the face of crisis, adversity, and in the aftereffects of trauma, it opens doors to better be able to understand and support each other in workspaces. There is a lot to learn, and it will take time and collaboration to let these mindsets saturate our workplaces but…
For today, it starts with nature – and a fascinating biology lesson…
There are some facets of life that nature rules. Natural disasters can be one of those domains – when a natural disaster occurs there isn’t a lot any of us as humans can do about it – the force of nature is bigger than us.
This is true about other areas in our experience as humans, both internal and external. Sometimes things happen to us that we didn’t choose and cannot control. Other times processes happen within us that seem out of our control as well.
We don’t really have a lot of choice about when we need to sneeze. A sneeze comes when a sneeze comes, so do some other bodily functions we can think of – and it’s tough to stop it! Same goes for a yawn – a yawn is easier to suppress than a sneeze but, consider the moment your brain notices that a yawn is coming – it’s hard to “decide” or “choose” that you are not going to yawn – the best you can do is suppress it and suppressing a yawn is darn uncomfortable.
These physical reactions are automatic, just like our heartbeat and breathing. Our nervous system is also responsible for many of these automatic functions, we don’t have to think about performing these tasks in our body. Imagine if we had to think about every heartbeat to stay alive? That’d be ridiculous! The automatic parts of our nervous system keep us alive but, more importantly, they keep us safe – both physically and emotionally.
We know that the nervous system is automatic – we can’t choose when we sneeze, yarn, have a deep desire to fall asleep or get a huge rush of energy to spurn us on. We can modify our environments to support different nervous system functioning but not the actual nervous system response.
***Note, there are a few exceptional human beings who have made amazing inroads to working with the nervous system on a conscious level through embodied and spiritual practices. Their work has brought awareness to everyday methods we can do to regulate the nervous system through techniques like yoga, breathing, meditation, ice bathing and more. ***
Due to bazillions (ok, millions) of years of evolution our nervous systems have found ways to react to stimuli that create bazillions (I’ll stand by my bazillons here) of manifestations within human relationships and interactions.
As we voyage into the nervous system there is one foundational idea we need to remember: The nervous system of a human is COMPLEX and ADAPTABLE (S. Bloom, 2023). Our nervous systems are complex, layered, spiraled, and need curiosity to be understood. Adaptable means our nervous systems can both change and be flexible.
So often when we talk about trauma, triggers, and growth we assume that all these factors take place inside the brain. This is not an uncommon misconception as throughout most of our lives we are taught that the brain reigns supreme and it is the brain we must “get in order” to “fix” our physical and emotional problems. However, many of us are stalled and frustrated with “thinking” our way out of dysregulation. We try talk therapy and behavior management programs and end up feeling like none of it “works”.
At work we find ourselves running up against the same problems, frustrations, and patterns. Certain situations leave us either hyper-aroused (angry, anxious, “fired-up”) or collapsed in exhaustion and despondency. I can offer some hope here. When we really start to shift our mindset to thinking about these chronic problems from the lens of trauma-informed leadership and the nervous system, we can see how patterns emerge and can shift our mindsets to a new alignment.
The nervous system was built over years of evolution that allows for us to see it now with three distinct responses when we are faced with situations that cause internal dysregulation.
In next week’s blog we will explore each state in detail and how it shows up at work. When you find yourself asking, “Why is my co-worker doing [insert reactive behavior here] at work every time we have a staff meeting?” you might get some real answers from this material. You might start to realize how important the body is at work (even when we think we are dealing mostly with brains), and you might enter into a paradigm shift – an actual change in the way you think and experience the world.
Because if we know anything it is that nature sometimes rules, but what it rules is complex and more importantly adaptable – and when something is adaptable there is great space for productive change, expanding edges, and deeper knowledge of ourselves and each other. Win, Win, Win.
I’d like to acknowledge the great minds that bring this theory and work to the public. Starting with Dr. Stephen Porges who developed the Poly Vagal Theory and did research on the vagus nerve as it relates to heart rhythm and human facial response. His work is very academic, and Deb Dana is the therapist who translated it for trauma informed clinicians and now I bring it to you. I would also like to recognize the work of Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Dan Seigel, Dr. Gabor Mate and Dr. Canon who we will meet in the next blogs as well. My deep gratitude to these pioneers and trail blazers for supporting our understanding and growth in trauma-informed care, regulation, and the nervous system’s impact on our human experience.