THE BLOG
03/13/2009 01:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What We All Can Learn from Trauma Survivors

"It's getting really bad out here," the CEO of a large food company told me last week over lunch. "The head of one of our divisions committed suicide last week. A day later we had a senior executive die of a heart attack. I see marriages breaking up, people screaming at each other, behaviors you couldn't have imagined at this time last year."

It's no great stretch to suggest that the past six months have been traumatic for millions of Americans. A trauma is a painful emotional experience of shock, usually resulting from an extremely stressful or life-threatening situation. Sound familiar?

Trauma prompts helplessness, a loss of a sense of basic safety, trust and control. Fear feeds on itself. In survival mode, our vision narrows, our breathing becomes more shallow and blood rushes out of our brain into our extremities - all designed to make it possible to fight or flee.

That's all well and good if a lion is coming at you.

If you've got a job to do that requires calm focus and logical thinking, survival mode isn't going to serve you or the organization you work for very well.

Symptoms of survival mode include an inability to think clearly or creatively, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, irritability and anger - all of which make a bad situation worse. Over time, those symptoms can turn into exhaustion, numbness, depression and hopelessness, which take an even deeper toll.

Trauma researchers, including my colleague Annie Perrin, cite four coping strategies that have proved to be most effective among survivors. These strategies are remarkably parallel to those we teach every day in large organizations to help people become sustainably high performers - and more recently, simply to manage more skillfully in the storm they're in.

The first key is holding onto the conviction that you have the power to influence your own experience, rather than seeing yourself as a helpless victim of forces bigger than yourself. That requires focusing, clearly and systematically, on what you have the power to influence, and not wasting energy worrying about what you can't.

The second key is taking very intentional care of yourself - and specifically being much more deliberate about nutrition, exercise and rest. Specifically, that means eating less sugar and caffeine (which are short term stimulants) and more protein and complex carbohydrates (which are more sustaining sources of energy).

It means adding intense and regular aerobic exercise, not just because it will make you fitter, which is a source of positive energy in itself, but also because it's an incredibly powerful form of mental and emotional renewal.

Finally, self-care includes making time at specific intervals throughout the day to relax. That can mean simply doing something you deeply enjoy, talking to a friend or taking a few minutes to do deep breathing. The point is to periodically lower your physiological arousal -- to return the body and mind to a resting state. Even more important, perhaps, is getting a full night's sleep, which begins with going to bed earlier.

We tend to live linear lives, not spending enough energy physically, and spending too much mentally and emotionally. We're healthiest when we move rhythmically between energy expenditure and energy renewal. Apart from its other benefits, taking better care of yourself in this way is a powerful, tangible way of taking back control of your life.

The third key to managing in tough times is finding opportunities to immerse yourself in challenging work. The more absorbing the work, the less distracted you're likely to be. The more meaningful the work is - the more value it adds to others -- the more satisfying it's likely to be.

Finally, the people who do best in times like these reach out to others for support and connection - moving deliberately against the instinct to isolate themselves.

Survival mode is dysfunctional, debilitating and destructive - both for individuals and for organizations. The more systematically we can take back control of our own lives - and help others to do so - the more resilient we're all likely to be in the face of the inevitable challenges ahead.