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Authors: Dr. Abbie Maroño
Published: July 17, 2023

“She became a shell of a person… She didn’t leave the house for weeks at a time, always glued to her laptop obsessing over the next thing that needed to be done, but once that was done it was the next thing and then the next thing and it never stopped. It’s like I was watching the life drain out of her a little more each day.”

I’m sure many parents will be familiar with this scenario, suffering the same thoughts as you watch your child struggle to keep up with the demands of university or a challenging career. Or maybe this is familiar for a different reason, you suspect it’s what your child is thinking as they watch you juggle an unmanageable workload, running yourself into the ground.

Let’s be honest, most of us are guilty of this at some point in our lives, taking on more work than we can handle and feeling buried beneath each encroaching deadline. But this is particularly dangerous when we are using our workload as a means of escaping something in our personal lives, such as a recent emotional trauma. In fact, using overwork to cope with trauma can lead to a significantly reduced quality of life, including impaired physical and mental health, neglecting personal hygiene, and strained relationships.

However, to be clear, diving into work as a way to cope with trauma can be a healthy coping mechanism. It provides structure, a sense of purpose, and a sense of accomplishment, all of which are important for healthy self-esteem and overall mental well-being. Overwork, however, is different. Overworking involves excessive work hours and constant preoccupation with work, leading to neglect of other aspects of life and burnout. For the remainder of this blog, I will be referring to the use of overwork as a coping mechanism after trauma.

The Illusion of Control

Traumatic events are often sudden and unpredictable, leaving individuals feeling helpless and unable to anticipate or prevent the traumatic experience. This unpredictability erodes the sense of control over one’s circumstances and future, leading to overwhelming feelings of powerlessness. When this happens, and you feel deeply helpless, overworking can provide a sense of control in a different area of life.

Indeed, when we work excessive hours, giving up weekends with our friends in exchange for weekends in the office, the quantity of our work output or achievements increases. Subsequently, the external validation from others, particularly from superiors, makes us feel that our behavior is productive and controllable. This validation also increases feelings of pride and accomplishment associated with overwork, further reinforcing a sense of control.

The problem is, that this level of productivity is unsustainable and only provides the illusion of control. This illusion crumbles when exhaustion forces us to stop working and the underlying emotional issues have not been dealt with.

A Healthier Way Of Healing

The solution to overwork seems simple but telling someone to “just work less” is unlikely to be effective given that overworking is more about trying to escape from pain than it is about the work itself. Hence, developing healthy coping strategies is essential.

As tough as it is, acknowledging the trauma and its impact is the first step. Once you recognize that the drive you feel towards overworking is unhealthy, you have laid the groundwork for healing in a healthier manner.

Next, consider replacing maladaptive coping mechanisms with more mindful practices, such as yoga, journaling, and meditation. Mindful practices can help you to reconnect with your emotions, focus on the present, and build resilience. Indeed, research has shown that mindfulness practice can be equal to, if not more effective, than antidepressant treatment when recovering from trauma.

Although you are ultimately in charge of how you decide to cope with your experiences, you do not need to take this journey alone. Social support, often neglected in the pursuit of work-related goals, plays a pivotal role in healing, and leaning on your close relationships can help provide you a sense of stability when you feel emotionally unstable.

In sum, overworking as a coping mechanism for trauma might offer a temporary escape, but the long-term consequences on mental health are profound and often devastating. As such, when you catch yourself trying to escape your emotions by working excessively, ask yourself this “What would I tell someone I loved to do if I saw them neglecting their mental health this way?” and then try to take your own advice.

I hope you show yourself the same patience and compassion that you would show a loved one.

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