At the beginning of this month, I introduced a blog series called “Let’s Talk About Mental Health.” Through the interviews and stories shared, we explored mental illnesses such as Anxiety and Depression, the various stigmas associated with them, ways to manage our mental health in the workplace, and ways to support people living with those mental illnesses.
In this concluding blog post, we will be learning about Trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With all the turbulent events that have occurred in recent times, I thought it would be good to understand how they might impact our mental health and what we can do to cope with them.
To help us break down both topics, I decided to interview Erica Reed, a Mental Health and Wellness Expert. Erica is a remarkable person who was recommended to me by Tamara Rasberry, my first guest in this blog series—thank you, Tamara!
Erica N. Reed, LCSW-C, is a Psychotherapist and the founder of ENR Training and Coaching. As a Psychotherapist and Corporate Trainer, she specializes in teaching organizations how to focus on the human side of business. She helps create work environments where people don’t dread the start of each workday. Her training, coaching, and keynote presentations focus on optimizing managers’ and employees’ personal and professional strengths, which result in high performing and collaborative teams.
Erica graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She has maintained a full-time private practice in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and has consulted with organizations as a trainer for over 20 years.
What made you decide to become a licensed therapist?
Well, I have always known that I wanted to help and serve people. Through undergraduate school and internships, I discovered my ability to work with people who were hurting. I helped them see and access answers that were already within them. I also helped them find out why they felt the way they did and what they could do to move forward.
I’ve been blessed to do that in many different ways throughout my career. I’ve been a therapist for over 20 years, and I’ve transitioned from working with diverse populations to maintaining my private practice and working with people in the workplace. I want to help people feel healthy at work, not just in their personal lives.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about therapy, and what would you say to correct that?
I think the biggest misconception is that only certain types of people go to therapy. Depending on who you are and your background, the “certain types of people” can vary. Some people think that only certain races go to therapy—that therapy is just for white people. Some believe that only people that aren’t strong in their faith go to therapy, while others think that only “crazy people” go to therapy.
So to correct that misconception, I would say that we need to redefine therapy. Therapy, as I like to share with people, is uninterrupted “you” time—a time dedicated to focusing on you and your goals. Therapy is a space without judgment or fear about people’s access to your information. Therapy is an opportunity to see life, situations, and past hurt from a different perspective so that you can learn from it, and then move forward into the life that you want to live.
UNDERSTANDING TRAUMA AND PTSD
In your practice, you help people who are suffering from Trauma and PTSD. How would you describe the difference between both? Do all traumatic events lead to PTSD?
Trauma and PTSD are very much interconnected, but at the same time, different. Trauma is our reaction to events that stretch us beyond our normal ways of managing stress. With typical stress, we can practice stress management and continue our day-to-day lives without sustained problems. However, trauma leaves its fingerprint on us, and it impacts us physically, cognitively, and emotionally. It also affects our self-concept, the relationships we have with others, and our day-to-day lives. Trauma can be a car accident, miscarriage, war, or pandemic. For example, some people are experiencing COVID-19 as a traumatic event because it has, to a certain extent, rearranged people’s day-to-day routines, work, family structure, and finances.
Whereas PTSD is a clinical diagnosis that a person can receive if the effects of trauma have a significant impact and have been sustained for a long time. Although statistics indicate that 75% of adults have experienced at least one form of traumatic event in their lives, not all of them will experience PTSD. For PTSD, certain criteria must be met, which include re-experiencing the symptoms such as flashbacks or dreams, or avoiding the symptoms like staying away from places that remind them of the trauma.
People with PTSD tend to rearrange their lives and daily routines to avoid certain people, places, or things. Symptoms include being easily startled, hypervigilant, quick to get angry, or having sleep problems. They can show changes in how they think and feel, such as being more pessimistic, experiencing guilt and shame, or showing depressive mood symptoms.
A person can experience trauma without PTSD, but the core of a PTSD diagnosis is a person who has experienced trauma.
What kinds of traumatic events tend to lead to PTSD?
Typically, events that are perceived as scary or dangerous lead to PTSD. When our innate fight-or-flight response is triggered, then that usually leads to PTSD. For example, being a victim of a violent crime such as robbery or sexual assault, experiencing childhood abuse, or being abused as an adult can lead to PTSD. Events that are just innately perceived as dangerous situations are more likely to lead to PTSD.
Why do some people develop PTSD after a specific traumatic event, while others do not?
Certain factors determine if a person is likely to experience PTSD after a specific traumatic event—these are the RISK versus PROTECTIVE factors.
Risk factors are those that increase the likelihood of PTSD. Some risk factors include having a previous history of trauma that you’ve not fully healed from, not having a support system, or not having good coping skills (being easily overwhelmed or shutting down quickly). Also, if they have a negative view of themselves in the world—thinking that bad things always happen to them or that they are unlucky—it can increase the likelihood of PTSD.
On the other hand, protective factors help us to be resilient in the face of challenging times. These include having a healthy support system, good coping skills, and a positive mindset. That means being able to reflect on previous challenges and reassure yourself that, “I’ve gone through this before, and I can find a solution,” instead of feeling stuck in the problem.
How can we support people dealing with Trauma and PTSD, particularly when their painful internal experiences are triggered?
We can support people experiencing trauma and PTSD through therapy. Many people see therapy as a last stage effort—something for those who are weak and can’t handle their challenges. Part of what we can do is to help people understand what therapy is, and make it feel like a much more viable option. Help them see the benefit—that it’s a confidential process to work through your problems.
To support people on a personal level, make sure that you practice active listening skills. Don’t feel like you need to fix them. Instead, be an active listener and let them know that you’re there to support and help them find their answers. Let them guide you on what they need from you—if they need space, respect that. If they just need to vent, respect that. If they just need to know that someone cares about them, definitely respect that.
As a mental health advocate, what do you think people can do to reduce the stigma around mental illness?
I think that redefining mental illness will help to reduce the stigma. People think of mental illness as the violence portrayed in TV shows, movies, or news channels. Mental illness is just on the spectrum of mental health. On one side of the spectrum is mental wellness, which is what we aim to achieve as we learn to manage stress, trauma, and other aspects of our lives. At the other end of the spectrum is mental illness, which is when we are not functioning optimally. The earlier part of mental illness may be depression and anxiety. As we go further, we may see psychotic disorders.
To a certain extent, we have all had a mental health challenge at some point in our lives. For example, if you have experienced grief and loss, you have experienced a mental health challenge. However, the coping strategies or resources that we utilize will determine how much we move up and down the mental health spectrum.
MENTAL HEALTH AND THE WORKPLACE
Some workplaces are more mentally taxing than others. How can employers create healthier workplaces for employees to thrive?
Lack of clarity and poor communication are major challenges in the workplace. If a person doesn’t know what to expect or doesn’t know when they have achieved the desired outcome, it can increase anxiety and stress. Those issues create an unhealthy workplace. Employers should be clear and realistic in their expectations of employees. There should be effective ways of communicating so that employees know what is expected of them and how they will achieve success.
Another challenge is that so many employees feel like leadership doesn’t care about them—that they can be easily replaced. As a leader, it is powerful to lead with a coaching mindset. Leaders with a coaching mindset make their employees feel supported, appreciated, and invested in the organization. Employees will feel like their work is necessary, and that they can thrive in the work environment. With a coaching mindset, a supervisor can guide a supervisee in pushing the organization’s goals as well as the employees’ goals.
mental health and COVID-19
What advice would you give people experiencing traumatic reactions during this COVID-19 pandemic?
The first thing I will suggest is to practice self-awareness. Have those times when you allow yourself to stop and reflect. You can do some journaling to get some clarity about what has happened throughout your life and how COVID-19 is currently impacting you. The goal is not to get stuck in the problem, but to shift to a solution—”What is the new normal that you want to create for yourself?” “What is your vision for yourself?”
The second thing is to know your triggers and symptoms. If you know that not getting enough sleep is going to increase stress and anxiety, then you know you have to manage your sleep. Same with eating. Same with people—conversations with certain people can be highly stressful and can trigger past traumas.
The third thing is to develop healthy coping strategies for those traumatic reactions. Too often, we tend to develop unhealthy habits such as excessive eating, binge-watching, or focusing on all the negative information on social media and the news. Instead, develop healthy coping strategies such as setting structure for your day, maintaining an active lifestyle, and staying connected with your support system and your therapist.
As a therapist, my first suggestion for people in the workplace is to tap into your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if you have access to it. An EAP is a wonderful service that many agencies do offer as a free benefit, so you’re able to get therapy for free.
Also, I have a free resource for stress management, but it’s for when employees are working in their office setting. I have a training course on managing stress and building resiliency; however, there is a cost involved.
Erica, thank you for taking part in this interview series about mental health, and for sharing your knowledge and experience on this subject.
As someone who has undergone therapy for trauma and PTSD, I can attest that you have done an excellent job of demystifying what they are. I hope that people learn about these mental health conditions, and understand how to support their friends, colleagues, and loved ones.
If there’s anything you’d like to tell Erica, please feel free to connect with her through her website, LinkedIn, and Facebook at @EricaNReedLCSWC.
Thank you to EVERYONE who has supported and followed this blog series for Mental Health Month. I appreciate all the feedback on Twitter, LinkedIn, and through direct messages. Again, please share this conversation with your friends, colleagues, and loved ones. That’s how we can educate others and reduce the stigma around mental health.
I had a great time doing this and learning from all the mental health advocates featured on this blog. I hope that I have accomplished my goal of raising awareness and making people know that they are not alone.
What are your thoughts on this conversation about Trauma, PTSD, and therapy?