Young businessman looking stressed at work.

Strategies for Navigating Your PTSD at Work

Because PTSD can affect your work performance in such a wide variety of ways, it’s important to have different strategies and coping mechanisms in place to handle your PTSD symptoms.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can make going to work a challenge. You may struggle to concentrate on your tasks or have a hard time remembering what your boss said during a meeting. You may be uncomfortable in loud conference rooms or struggle to stay awake after a sleepless night.

Learning how to manage your PTSD in the workplace is an important part of coping with PTSD, but it can be challenging. You can’t completely control your environment or decide what noises you’ll hear. You can’t dictate each conversation or topic discussed in the break room. With the right tools and strategies, you may be able to navigate your PTSD at work and build a successful career.

How Can PTSD Affect My Work?

Stressed and exhausted construction worker at construction site.PTSD doesn’t look the same for every person at every job. It can impact you at work in a number of ways – it doesn’t have to be a flashback in the middle of a meeting or a panic attack during your lunch break. Here are some ways your PTSD may affect you at work:

  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Anxiousness or feeling on edge
  • Negative thinking
  • Difficulty interacting with others
  • Feelings of hopelessness or despair
  • Flashbacks
  • Irritability or anger
  • Fatigue
  • Being easily startled or scared

Because PTSD can affect your work performance in such a wide variety of ways, it’s important to have different strategies and coping mechanisms in place to handle your PTSD symptoms. When you become aware of what works best for you, you may find it’s possible to manage your PTSD and continue to be a productive employee.

What Strategies Can I Use to Manage My PTSD at Work?

Woman working as an operator of a call center feeling stressed.Depending on how your PTSD affects you, you’ll need a toolbox of coping skills to help navigate your workplace. Here are some specific strategies to consider:

  • Ground yourself. If you feel yourself losing control or slipping into a flashback, try to refocus your mind on the present. One technique many experts recommend is called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which engages your five senses. As described here in a blog by The National Alliance on Mental Illness, you name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Focusing on your five senses may help your mind come back to the present.
  • Move your body. When your mind begins to go numb or you feel yourself starting to panic, stand up or move about your work area, and shake your body, paying attention to different body parts and all the sensations in your body. Do this anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes, trying to refocus your mind on the present. Moving your body – even if you walk around or go up and down stairs – can release stress and help to regulate your nervous system.
  • Use headphones or earplugs. Oftentimes, for people with PTSD, loud unexpected noises can be upsetting and may increase anxiety or flashbacks. Other times, noise may make it hard to focus on your work. Using headphones or earplugs, if it’s acceptable to do so in your work environment, can shut out noises and may be helpful. Try noise-canceling headphones or play white noise or soothing music – whatever calms you down or helps you refocus your attention on your work.
  • Create a distraction for yourself. If you find yourself becoming anxious or having a flashback, try doing something distracting to force you to focus on the present. Chewing a piece of really sour candy, for example, may force your brain to concentrate on that sensation alone. Having a mantra or an expression you repeat over and over to yourself may have the same distracting effect.
  • Do something calming during your lunch or break time. The small amounts of time you’re given away from your work may help you manage your PTSD symptoms by allowing you a chance to relieve stress. Try going for a short walk in the fresh air. Or have a short meditation lined up and use your break to relax and take some deep breaths. If the break room feels overwhelming or crowded, ask your supervisor for a quieter place to go.
  • Learn some meditation or breathing techniques. This is an ideal strategy for work because breathing techniques can be done anywhere, anytime. Even a few minutes of concentrated breathing can help you slow down racing thoughts, reduce your heart rate and relieve some stress.
  • Determine what aspects of the job trigger you most. If you can figure out what aspects of the job make it hardest to manage your PTSD, you can begin to find solutions. For example, if crowded spaces are overwhelming, request a different break time than your coworkers. If you have a hard time dealing with the stress of rush hour traffic, ask about adjusting your work schedule to start earlier, or work from home on certain days if your job allows it. If you don’t like being approached from behind, inquire about moving to a workstation or desk that allows you to see who is coming.
  • Ask for instructions in writing. If you’re having difficulties with your memory or with staying on task, ask your supervisor for any instructions or important tasks in writing. A follow-up email after a conversation may provide you with the reminder you need. You could also ask if you could record important conversations to help you remember tasks.
  • Create a less distracting environment. If you’re easily distracted, you could ask for simple changes to your work environment. This could include better lighting or the use of a space enclosure. It might mean relocating your workstation or desk to a quieter area. Simple changes like these may make it easier for you to focus and stay on task.
  • Look into helpful organizational tools. Your employer may be able to provide you with a way to record important meetings or a timer to help you meet deadlines. You could ask for large tasks to be broken into smaller tasks with concrete steps or step-by-step checklists to guide you.
  • Ask for a flexible schedule. Talk to your employer about the best scheduling options for you. If you have trouble sleeping, ask about working a later shift, or starting later in the day. If you get anxious sitting or standing in one place for too long, ask if you can take shorter, more frequent breaks instead of a long one. If you need a certain afternoon off for your mental health care appointments, be sure to request a way to work around it.
  • Consider sharing helpful aspects of your diagnosis. If you suffer from PTSD, sharing certain aspects of it with your employer or your coworkers may be helpful. Your coworkers may want you to talk about your Service or ask you questions you aren’t comfortable answering. By sharing how you feel, you can establish a more predictable, trusting space for yourself. If your employer knows you’re uncomfortable in open spaces, for example, you may be able to call in for a meeting instead of going in person.
  • Know your rights. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other nondiscrimination laws, most employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified employees with disabilities. A reasonable accommodation is similar to the suggestions found in this article. It’s any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enable an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Your employer may not realize that the ADA applies to mental health conditions like PTSD. For more information about your rights, check out Managing Your PTSD in the Workplace.
  • Small work group meeting.Look into your employee assistance program (EAP). Your employer may have an EAP, which can provide access to mental health professionals who can help you develop coping skills, brainstorm helpful accommodations and more. Your employer may be able to provide a job coach to help you learn your responsibilities and sit in on meetings to ensure your understanding of important material, develop time management strategies and more.
  • Check out the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN is a free consulting service that provides individualized accommodation solutions and information related to employment for people with disabilities.
  • Seek help. If your PTSD continues to interfere with your work or your day-to-day life, reach out to a mental health care provider who can help you get the treatment you deserve. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Center for PTSD is the world’s leading research and educational center of excellence on PTSD and traumatic stress. Remember, PTSD is a treatable condition and consistent treatment can help. Explore VA’s resources, treatment options, mobile apps and more.

You can’t control everything that happens at work, but you can give yourself the right tools and strategies to help you cope with your PTSD.

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