A cartoon image of a line of sad business people walking in a line, one of which is holding a carboard box, symbolising mass layoffs.
Image: © Feodora/Stock.adobe.com

Dealing with the trauma of abrupt large-scale layoffs

25 Nov 2022

In light of the ongoing layoffs within the tech sector, psychotherapist Maria Parker takes a closer look at the trauma workers can face when going through these experiences.

To be human is to be wired for connection and when this connection is abruptly and mercilessly severed, people are deeply impacted on many levels.

Chaos and disruption ignite fear, anxiety and trauma or re-traumatisation, feelings of not being safe or of a separation from future optimism. This is just some of what organisational trauma looks like. Gabor Mate states that: “Trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you.”

Being left alone after a traumatic incident with no support or guidance leaves people’s nervous systems in disarray with many showing signs of PTSD, anxiety and depression.

Each individual impacted by layoffs is going to create their own story about what happened based on who they are and what their experience of life has been to date. Anyone left behind will have difficult feelings of guilt, shame and shock to deal with.

Each one of us has experienced early life traumas or experiences that shape who we are today and impact how resilient we are, or not. Each person is not an island but a member of a family, a community or relationship, each at varying stages within their lives.

Just as each human is unique, so too are their living stories. Some alone and lonely, others starting out in relationships, others observing the price of the soaring cost of living and others dealing with the desperate grief that comes from the death of a child.

Trauma impacts and infiltrates all aspects of who the person is and this excessive activation of the flight, fight and freeze response within us can lead to long-lasting changes in the body and brain. When we understand the stress response, we can make changes that will support the choices we make going forward and lead to a sense of regaining control where it has been lost.

To do this, you must understand what happens for you when you have been pushed out of your window of tolerance.

Reacting to trauma

This window, when you are in it, means that you can manage what is currently going on in your life. You will experience stress and pressure but it doesn’t affect you too much. This is exactly where you want to be in life. Once a hugely stressful or traumatic event occurs in our lives that we aren’t prepared for – which they do – we move into one of two places: hyperarousal or hypoarousal.

Hyperarousal is where you feel anxious, overwhelmed or out of control, your body moves into fight or flight and releases adrenaline and cortisol, the two primary stress hormones. This happens automatically within your body in response to the threatening environment around you.

When you are in fight or flight, it is very difficult to gain perspective about what your options are, your true potential is out of reach and it is not possible to be creative about what your next moves are going to be. It is all about survival.

Hypoarousal means you shut down or zone out, your body wants to shut down by blocking out all that is going on around you. You may feel frozen, disassociate and suffer with digestive issues. Being aware of how we react to stress and trauma gives us the ability to make the changes needed to move forward in our lives.

You must first observe what is happening within your body. Once you identify the response you have had to your experience, you can look at ways of healing. You will want to move into what we call the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ where you will then be able to navigate the world again with safety and flexibility. You will be able to reconnect with others and have the ability to see your options and possibilities clearly.

If you notice that you have gone into the fight or flight response, you then need to look at ways to become grounded again. Begin with self-compassion, kindness towards you and the situation you are in.

Pause, breathe into that gentle feeling, know you are not alone and this too shall pass. The hormones that have been released during this phase of the stress response will need time to reduce within our bodies.

We can help by becoming conscious of the thoughts we are having and what attention we are paying to them. Are we believing what we are thinking? Is there something more positive I can replace them with? If not, could I just allow the thought to pass and not grasp onto it?

The more energy we give to our negative thoughts, the more activated our systems become. Meditation is an excellent way of focusing the brain and it allows our bodies to begin to relax. If this is too difficult to start with, begin with getting outside in nature for a walk, guiding your mind to just be in the present moment. Remember this will take a little time to work but with conscious focused effort, it will.

If you are in a freeze response, you may feel out of touch with the world, as if everything around you has slowed down. A great breathing technique is four-seven-eight breathing, which will help you to ground yourself within your surroundings again.

In for a count of four, hold for seven and slowly breathe out for the count of eight. This is very supportive for your nervous system. Ensure you are in a place you do feel safe and never be afraid to reach out for support.

By understanding why we react the way we do to traumatic events, it gives us back some of our power to deal with them. Never forget that you will get through this and that with knowledge comes choice.

During the greatest upheavals comes opportunity and some of the greatest learning. If possible, use this time to develop these superpowers within yourself.

By Maria Parker

Maria Parker is an accredited psychotherapist, mental health nurse and emotional intelligence consultant with 22 years of clinical experience.

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