Last week, we discussed how to recognize trauma states at work. The classic fight, flight, freeze, and appease trauma responses can reveal themselves in subtle ways, and other lesser-known trauma states can plague professional environments.
Now that we know how to spot when someone is stuck in survival mode at work, it’s time to talk about how to help someone get out of that mindset.
Today, we’ll explore the answer to the question: how can we respond to someone when they’re stuck in trauma brain?
What is trauma brain or survival brain?
Trauma brain is a mindset. You could also call it a state of mind or a headspace. It’s like a setting in our minds that our brains turn on in response to stress.
This setting helps us ensure our survival. In the face of traumatic experiences, we behave in certain ways that will help us avoid harm. This survival mode can be extremely helpful—until it’s not.
The problem with trauma brain is that our fight, flight, freeze, and appease coping mechanisms can become maladaptive. Our brain sees danger where there isn’t, and we get pushed into survival mode.
When we’re in survival mode, we cannot access executive functioning skills. After all, these skills aren’t necessary for survival. But we do need them to succeed in our everyday lives.
Executive functioning skills include planning and logic. We need them to think about the future, organize tasks, manage time, focus our attention, and remember important information.
If we cannot access those skills because we are stuck in trauma brain, it becomes extremely difficult to accomplish the responsibilities we face in our personal and professional lives.
This phenomenon is partially why learning about trauma-informed systems and fostering resilience is so essential to run successful organizations.
How to approach someone in a trauma state
Understanding how trauma brain works is a fairly simple task. The science is, for the most part, straightforward. But knowing how to behave when you notice you or someone else has flipped their survival switch on is a more difficult task.
Someone in survival mode cannot think about the future or access their logical reasoning skills. They struggle to focus on the topic of conversation and easily forget what has been said.
Everything you might want to say to them in that moment likely makes sense, but it won’t get through to them now. Your valid points and poignant questions must wait until this person can access their executive functioning brain.
So, instead of trying to use logic to help someone get out of a trauma state, here’s what you can do.
1 - Establish safety
The best thing you can do for someone experiencing a trauma state—whether it’s a coworker, a loved one, or yourself—is to establish safety.
A sense of safety arises from our actions, attitudes, and words. If someone becomes combative or frozen, you can use safety phrases to help them let go of their survival response.
“I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to help you.”
“It’s okay. I’m not mad at you.”
“You’re not going to be punished.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“We can take a break if you need to.”
2 - Maintain a calm tone of voice
Sometimes what we say has less of an impact than how we say it. When using safety phrases, you can use a calm and sure tone of voice to convey your message clearly.
Having a kind and compassionate expression on your face can also go a long way to convincing whoever is having a trauma response that you mean what you’re saying. If you appear angry, upset, or disappointed, the disconnect between your words and your body language could be confusing.
3 - Listen actively to gain insight
Active listening is a powerful skill for any professional, and it can come in handy when you’re trying to help someone who’s struggling with trauma brain.
Active listening can give you insight into what’s stressing this person out so that you can address it and establish safety.
When someone is stuck in trauma brain, they feel unsafe. Figuring out what their brain tells them is unsafe can help you help them. However, that doesn’t mean that you should pry with invasive questions. Just listen.
4 - Let go of control and don’t push
One of the most common reasons people feel unsafe is that their boundaries are not respected. Whether the issue arises from other people blatantly disrespecting their boundaries, a struggle to communicate boundaries well, or both, acknowledging boundaries can help create safety.
In order to respect boundaries, we also need to let go of control. Accepting that we cannot force someone to behave or think a certain way enables us to respect their boundaries.
Creating safety through boundary setting can look like this:
“We don’t have to talk about it.”
“I’m hearing that you don’t like it when I do this. Do you want me to stop?”
"You don’t have to answer this question.”
“We can pause this conversation.”
When we see that someone is suffering, it’s common to desperately want them to change in ways that we know will alleviate their suffering. But we cannot make them change. We can only support them as they move through their trauma response and regain their executive functioning ability.
5 - Acknowledge what you do have the power to change
Knowing what we do and do not have the power to change is an essential part of trauma-informed care. In this knowledge, we find acceptance and empowerment.
We have the power to:
lend support and offer help
provide tools and resources
But we do not have the power to make someone accept those resources or support.
6 - Resist engaging in reenactments
We also have the power to break the reenactment triangle.
When someone is in a trauma brain state, they often take on one of three key roles: the victim, the persecutor, or the rescuer.
The victim is full of self-pity and helplessness. The persecutor is focused on blaming and attacking others. The rescuer forgets their own needs to save others.
Knowing the roles that we take on with certain people can help us escape this dynamic, supporting our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the people we engage with. By resisting reenactments, we can pull someone out of their survival brain and into executive functioning mode.
7 - Make requests that push their brain into executive functioning mode
Finally, we can assign tasks to someone in survival mode to help them escape their trauma brain.
Some coping skills are a great example of this, like the 5-4-3-2-1 method. This grounding technique asks you to name:
5 things you can see
4 things you can touch or feel
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
Brain Gym exercises can also help us escape trauma responses by activating our concentration, memory, and coordination centers, and we can use simplified versions of this exercise, such as crossing toes (try to cross your pinky toe over and under the toe next to it) or moving one hand up and down while the other moves left to right.
Other executive functioning tasks include thinking about the future, so we can also ask planning questions, such as:
“What do you want to accomplish today?”
“How should we go about doing that?”
“What steps do we need to take in order to…?”
How to Approach Someone in a Trauma State
When you recognize that trauma states are taking over, you can take these steps to help others get out of it:
Use kind words, tone of voice, and expressions
Respect and acknowledge boundaries
Practice radical acceptance and empowerment
Use executive functioning tasks
Trauma sensitivity is a lifelong journey
Trauma-informed care is a practice that doesn’t happen overnight. Becoming a trauma-sensitive leader is a transformative process that will challenge and heal you in unexpected ways.
If you want to learn more about trauma-informed practices in professional settings, be sure to explore our weekly blogs.
And don’t miss out on our limited-time experience, Intentional Conversations, where we discuss our weekly blog topics in a virtual trauma-informed space. Intentional Conversations are a free resource for you. Take advantage of it while you can! You can reserve your seat here.