Psychological Trauma

Many of us are familiar with the term Trauma. We hear it mentioned in relation to the exceptional work undertaken by doctors and nurses up and down the country who help to rebuild lives after a distressing event such as a car accident, stabbing or physical injury. We are also familiar with the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This term became well known as we begun to learn more about the stories of brave members of the armed forces who need help to recover following experiences on the front line.

Psychological trauma is a less well-known concept – particularly in relation to workplace conflict. The phrase was used in my presence recently. A medical consultant referred to being psychologically traumatised as a result of witnessing a sustained period of conflict and tension amongst his colleagues. The experts in nephrology, had been involved in a team battle for 18 months before a mediation session allowed for the opportunity to have an adult to adult discussion. The consultant was wondering, quite genuinely, how he could be expected to come into work and function the next day as if nothing had happened. He said he felt psychologically traumatised.  Psychological trauma describes someone who has experienced a particularly stressful event which impairs their ability to cope. In this context I refer specifically to those who experience conflict and tension in the workplace. The symptoms of psychological trauma are both emotional and physical. One is likely to experience anxiety, cognitive impairment, insomnia and stomach disturbance.

One of the elements in team conflict which increases the level of feeling traumatised is being ignored by those who believe you are empathising with the wrong side. As part of the dispute with the nephrologists, camps formed, and an imaginary barrier was erected by some team members against colleagues. The feeling of isolation can be excruciating. In fact, brain scans show that the pain of such exclusion trigger the same areas in the brain associated with physical pain. The connection between the two is so deep that doses of pain-killing drugs such as acetaminophen and paracetamol have been found to reduce both physical pain and the emotional upset and anxieties that come from the experience of rejection. The pituitary gland of the brain produces chemicals that help us recognise how we might be feeling. One such chemical that is known to circulate around our bodies during times of conflict is Cortisol. Psychologists Sally Dickerson and Margaret Kemeny (1) have discovered that Cortisol levels increase in response to a threat to one’s self-esteem. Cortisol rises up to three times as much when social or team evaluation or judgement, leading to being ignored is present.

One might experience a range of symptoms in attempting to re-establish a sense of normality following a particularly difficult period of conflict. This could include:

  1. Re-living the trauma in the present: including spontaneous intrusive memories, flashbacks, recurrent dreams or other intense or prolonged psychological distress.
  2. Avoidance symptoms: including active avoidance of distressing memories, feelings, external reminders of the event or the use of drugs or alcohol to numb distress and reduce emotion.
  3. Alteration in arousal and reactivity: Including reckless or aggressive behaviour, sleep disturbance or feelings of panic and fear.

The stress associated with conflict which continues over time can become damaging to one’s health. It is well known that blood pressure tends to rise amongst people constantly exposed to stressful conditions. As a coping mechanism, individuals might resort to drink, drugs or even prescribed psychoactive drugs to help combat the effects.

Psychological trauma in relation to workplace conflict is serious. As yet, it is barley spoken about. Interventions are available to help those in distress including:

  • Stabilisation and psycho-education to address current stressors and regain stability
  • Trauma processing to help process traumatic memories
  • Reintegration and recovery to re-establish team bonds and cohesion to improve personal and interpersonal functioning
  • Conflict coaching

This is an overdue moment to encourage organisations to begin to think about the concept of Psychological Trauma in relation to workplace conflict. It fits neatly into the employee experience and well-being arena and enhances one’s ability to be able to return to work successfully, following a period of turmoil and mayhem.


(1)     Dickerson, S and Kemeny M, ‘Acute Stressors and Cortisol Responses: A Theoretical Integration and Synthesis of Laboratory Research’ Psychological Bulletin 130(3):355-91 · June 2004