Trigger Warning: Tips for Overcoming Workplace Trauma

Trigger Warning: Tips for Overcoming Workplace Trauma

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Scores of people have used the pandemic to reassess their lives, and leaving toxic workplaces has been high on their priority lists. But a toxic workplace can leave a lasting mark, and even in a new job and company you may find yourself “triggered” by previous experiences. Workplace trauma is very real and it can take some deliberate efforts to heal from a hostile environment.

According to Dale Sokoloff, Harvard trained clinical psychologist and co-founder of DKS Consulting Group, a trigger is when you have an emotional response to something that has happened in the past.

Here are some techniques from a mental health expert on how to get through the moment and decrease the impact of those triggers:

Recognize your triggers

Often when we are triggered, we don’t realize we are triggered right away. “People are paralyzed around a trigger,” Sokoloff says.

So the first step is to recognize you are having a trigger moment. “Understand you are having an emotional reaction that is personal to you and you have to notice, recognize, and really, honor it for what it is,” Sokoloff says. “The most important thing is to recognize the trigger.”

When you are triggered, you might feel angry, fearful, sad or overwhelmed. “People have all kind of experiences with people and how they are treated and sometimes we react emotionally,” she says. But if you can identify what is happening to you, you can have more control over the situation.

Slow down and assess

Once you realize you are feeling triggered, you need to slow down, take a breath, and assess what is truly happening.

“Often, we react really quickly,” Sokoloff says. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling? What else might explain what is going on?’ You might realize you’ve had this experience before when someone has behaved in a certain way.”

When you are able to do that, you can do some self-talk to de-escalate. “We tend to think the other person is doing something wrong and that makes us angry or upset,” Sokoloff says. “We think something needs to be fixed with them.”

Sokoloff says that when we aren’t triggered, and something uncomfortable happens, we often attribute it to an accident or a justifiable cause and are quick to find a way to rectify it. So, for example, if you are left out of a meeting you think you should have been invited to, you might just casually check in with your boss about why that is.

“But if we are triggered, we may jump to wondering if our job is at risk or if we are being intentionally left out,” she says.

Part of that is your emotional response to past events. Maybe at your last job, you job was actually at risk and/or you were intentionally being left out. But in a new situation, being able to manage triggers will help you avoid jumping to that conclusion.

“When you are triggered you are telling yourself a story about what other people are doing,” Sokoloff says. “It can be small or major, but it’s your perception.”

Resolve the trigger

The final step, according to Sokoloff, is figuring out what you want to happen, and what the outcome you are looking for is. “People talk about what they don’t want to happen, the behaviors they want stopped,” Sokoloff says. “But it’s easier to get people to do something, not to stop doing something.”

So back to the meeting invite example, the goal is not go after or punish the other person for triggering you, it’s to get invited to the meeting. “Think about what you can do in a positive way to achieve that goal,” Sokoloff says. “Look toward solving problems with your strengths.”

Maybe you were left out of the meeting unintentionally, and that can be easily rectified by ensuring you are on the right lists. But maybe you were also left out of the meeting intentionally; if that’s the case, use it as an opportunity to check in with your boss about why you were left out, and what you need to do on your end to be invited next time.

After you are triggered and leave the situation, it’s easy to ruminate about the event that triggered you. Try to do something pleasurable, but distracting, to prevent yourself from getting re-agitated.

Avoid being a trigger

It is also important for managers to not only be able to handle their own triggers, but to be aware of the triggers of their employees. If you know an employee has come from a toxic workplace, you might be a little more sensitive in the way you handle that employee until they feel more secure.

Reacting to employees’ triggers in a healthy way not only helps your employee to manage their emotions, but sends a message to your team that you are able to react to difficult situations with calm and positivity, and that you support your team.


Workplace trauma can take time to heal from, but knowing you are having a major emotional response is the clue that you have been triggered. Knowing what will bother you, or even set you off, can make a huge impact on becoming triggered in the first place. And once you realize what makes you triggered, you can be better prepared to handle getting triggered.

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Jennifer L. Grybowski
About the Author
Jennifer L. Grybowski

Jennifer L. Grybowski has been a journalist and writer for 20 years. She has written about business, government, politics, education, and culture. She holds a MFA from Southern New Hampshire University, and also writes fiction. Connect with her at

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