Normal Reactions to Abnormal Events: Understanding Stress Reactions in the Workplace

Featured Image for Normal Reactions to Abnormal Events: Understanding Stress Reactions in the WorkplaceWhen disaster occurs, we all feel it. Even if we are not directly involved, stress responses are normal. For most of us, the response is short-lived but can be derailing, especially in the workplace.

Knowing what to expect can help us weather stressful events.

For managers and HR, understanding normal stress responses can be an important tool in supporting your employees. Stress reaction can take a variety of forms, some of which might not seem connected to the event. Recognizing the common symptoms can help make sense of our behaviors and that of others.

When we first hear of a critical event, especially acts of violence, we expect to feel a range of emotions such as:

  • Sorrow for the victims
  • Anxiety for ourselves and our loved ones
  • Anger at the assailants
  • Disbelief that these things happen

What we may not expect are other common stress reactions that can subtly impair our functioning in the hours or days following the event. Many of them we might not associate with the event at all. Some may appear several days later, making the connection even more tenuous.

You could be puzzled by cognitive gaps like:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Memory lapses

Your sleep may be interrupted by nightmares or insomnia. Even if you are sleeping, you may feel fatigued. Both sleep and concentration can be disrupted by headaches, intrusive images, or replaying events in your mind.

Feeling under the weather can actually be a stress reaction. Nausea, digestive problems, loss of appetite can combine with fatigue, depression, and anxiety to produce an overall sense of unwellness. You may not feel ill, per se, but you feel generally crappy. Even helpless.

You may find yourself reacting uncharacteristically to things: bursting into tears, jumping when a colleague knocks on your door, pacing restlessly, becoming suspicious of others, or seeing potential danger everywhere.

On the other hand, you may wonder what’s wrong with you because you don’t feel anything at all. You’re bored by things you normally like, apathetic about the world in general, or overwhelmed by helplessness. You withdraw from friends and colleagues.

The cumulative effects of stress reaction may play out in the workplace in the form of:

  • Increased conflict
  • Emotional outbursts (tears, anger)
  • Lack of attention to detail

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, for most of us, these responses will fade over time.

Give yourself time. Give yourself permission to be a little off. Focus on positive thoughts.

Remaining productive personally and professionally can help you regain a sense of control: over yourself and your environment.

If you still don’t feel yourself within a few weeks of the initial incident, it may be time to seek help from community resources, a mental health professional, or your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If you don’t know where to turn, your EAP is a good start; they can assess the severity of the issue and put you in touch with the right resources.

For more information on common stress responses, download Common Responses Following a Traumatic Event.

Our next article in this series offers insight into coping strategies that can help you and your team return to normal as quickly as possible.

Originally published January 2016