In 2003, my healthy, marathon-running 31 yr old husband died suddenly from a pulmonary arterial dissection. Those five hours were the worst, most horrific I hope I'll ever know. For years, I struggled with the impacts of grief and life as a young widow. I assumed the darkness and depression were standard parts of widowhood, and would be my struggles forever. But one wintery night - 8 years after my husband died - my little sister intervened. “Heidi," she said. "You're not you. I’ve done some research and talked to some experts, and I'm certain you have PTSD.” I was sure she was wrong; I hadn't served in a war or been impacted by abuse. This was just grief. But I promised that I'd start therapy and, in the very first session, the therapist confirmed my sister's belief: I had PTSD.
The diagnosis shed a small ray of light and reason on my recurring nightmares and flashbacks. Here it was: a logical explanation why I still didn’t talk about That Night. There was an answer for why I was deeply stuck, and it wasn’t because - as I’d scolded myself - I was "weak". It was because I had suffered a deeply traumatic event. And I had PTSD.
The treatment process, a therapeutic modality called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), involved exploring my memories of That Night piece by piece, identifying the prevalent emotion(s), and revisiting the memory multiple times while sparking the right and left brain to fire. Our neurological knowledge only scratches the surface as to why it works, but it’s a proven technique on veterans, abuse survivors, accident victims, and this particular widow.
The EMDR process untangled me in ways I didn’t even know I was tangled. I grew emotionally stronger and gained confidence in my decision making, my capabilities, and my professional aspirations. I began to take emotional risks that I wouldn’t have imagined one year before. And I began to apply my PTSD learnings to my leadership skills, altering my interactions with my team and my colleagues based on what I'd uncovered about myself. Here's what I learned and how it changed me:
1. Understanding The Neurology of Stress
- We talk about stress daily - it’s become a socially acceptable part of our lives and our careers. But how many leaders understand how the science of causes physical and mental alterations?
- The neuroendocrine system issues a stress response and releases high cortisol, which weakens the immune system. Breath becomes short or shallow, appetite disappears or increases dramatically, and sleep disturbance or insomnia become an issue. The limbic system is in a constant state of flight-flight-freeze, impacting a person's ability to operate rationally or take interest in things around them.
My Application: As leaders, we have a responsibility to pay attention to our employees' stress levels. Stress is much more than a state of mind, and prolonged stress causes mental deterioration individually and across the team, resulting in impacts to productivity, culture, and employee satisfaction. Obviously. Taking time for light-hearted interactions, team lunches, happy hours, and socialization gives the brain time to step away from the stress. None of this is new. We’ve always known that team bonding is good for our people. For me, diving into the science behind stress and understanding the necessity of bonding helped solidify my responsibility as a leader to create this space for my people.
2. Giving Space To An Employee's Mental State and Capacity
- The Learnings: In the years since my husband died, my professional circle has been affected by traumatic loss multiple times. A peer lost her husband to heart failure. One direct employee had a critically sick child in the ICU. Another direct employee lost her husband to cancer. A coworker lost his son to leukemia. Life is life. It is neither fair nor easy, and we leaders are often unprepared for how to navigate the physical and emotional implications on our teams.
- My Application: Allow the space for your team to be emotionally vulnerable if the time is right. Be a therapist and a coach, and give them a safe space to talk and - often - to cry. It’s healthy and helpful, and not something we need to “fix” or “stop”. Just listen, nod, ask open-ended questions, and ask what they’d like to do next. Yes, our schedules are tight, deadlines are looming, and metrics are under pressure. But the time we take to let our employees vent and be who they are is priceless. (Article: When Leadership and Grief Intersect)
3. Paying Homage To the Right Brain
- The Learnings: Businesses are hard-wired for left brain thinking. We gravitate toward logical processes, rational thought, and analytical reasoning. But the right brain allows for creativity, feeling and intuition, strategic ideas and innovation. The EMDR process helped me realize how important it is to tap into that “right brain” thinking - to make space and time for the creative, feeling side of us to emerge. Allowing right-brain moments in the workplace makes the team more innovative and inspired.
- My Application: We can’t impose on our employees to explore their creative side outside of work, but we can create creative opportunities within the workplace. A brainstorming session. A design thinking innovation workshop. A problem-solving session in which all solutions must be presented via drawing. A volunteering or artistic team-building event. I’ve seen some powerful problem-solving happen in the kitchen of a homeless shelter during volunteering event, and all I needed to do was block out their calendars for a few hours to make it happen.
The process of working through my PTSD enlightened me as a human being, and the learnings of trauma and the brain helped me grow as a leader. I’ll certainly never look at 1-on-1 time or team building activities the same.